Forget Marissa Mayer’s now infamous ban on remote workers at Yahoo. Many companies — particularly small businesses — rely on employees who work away from the office. After all, telecommuting minimizes overhead, gives staff members flexibility, and grants employers access to a much larger talent pool.
But managing remote workers presents some challenges. The distances between people can lead to miscommunication and misunderstandings. Emails can be misread, and silence can make employees wonder whether they’ve been forgotten.
Here are four smart ways to make sure you and your remote workers stay on the same page.
1. Use simple, actionable statements. When sending email, be clear, concise, and up-front about why you are writing. Do you want a response today? Do you need the recipient to make a decision? Say so. Avoid trying to be humorous — and save the small talk for phone calls.
Speaking of the phone, don’t be afraid to use it after exchanging several emails about one topic. “If there’s a lot of back and forth, something is getting lost in translation,” says Rebecca Tann, vice president of marketing at Regus, which provides businesses with flexible workspaces.
2. Use technology to your advantage. Phone calls are usually an effective way to discuss an issue, but in some instances, a face-to-face conversation is necessary. You don’t need to be in the same place to do this anymore. Schedule a Google Hangout or Skype video chat online. If you just can’t explain a problem without visual aids, convene a Join.me or WebEx meeting. For example, an employee could show you an issue he’s having with his computer, or the two of you could walk through a marketing campaign together.
Tann, who manages 15 full-timers and five contractors spread around North America, finds Skype especially helpful for picking up physical cues she would miss over the phone or by email. When presenting a controversial topic, such as a shift in business strategy, she may pick up on an employee’s reaction and say, “I see you don’t feel comfortable with what I’m saying. Let’s talk through it.”
3. Take charge of the situation. Leadership is often a one-way street: Managers need to interject themselves into what workers are doing, keep them apprised of the goings-on at the company, and find out what they’re doing. Employees are far less likely to pick up the phone and call you than you are to call them.
“If you’re the type of leader who likes to keep your head down, you have to work extra hard when managing remote workers and make proactive calls,” Tann notes.
4. Meet in person occasionally. Communication breakdowns don’t occur as often between people who truly know each other. Unfortunately, working apart can make familiarity difficult.
“Relationships aren’t built as quickly when employees are remote,” says Tann, whose team gets together once a quarter in Dallas. Although you may not be able to afford frequent gatherings, try to make room in your budget for at least a yearly, one-on-one meeting with some or all of your workers.