Remote work has never been more popular, and it’s here to stay.

In the U.S, 37% of workers have worked remotely. Twenty years ago, only 9% of employees worked remotely. Globally, 50% of employees are working virtually for part of the workweek, according to this survey of thousands of professionals.

It’s easy to see why. Remote work provides flexibility, creating the right conditions for improved concentration in increasingly distracting workplaces. And some studies even suggest remote workers have happier marriages.

As an employer, you know virtual offices are cheaper, because you’re spending less on real estate. Plus, remote employees are more likely to feel productive in their roles.

Some companies are fully distributed, while others allow employees to work from home a few times a week.

But if you’re managing remote employees, you know it’s a working arrangement that comes with its own set of challenges.

We’ll explore the best practices for managing remote employees, presenting strategies from leading remote companies.

Set Expectations

Building a successful remote team team depends on establishing expectations and boundaries.

There’s a myth that remote work equals less work. The upside of remote work is that there’s more flexibility: employees get more control over the way they work. But, many companies fear this flexibility means work won’t get completed to the same level.

Of course, even that perception is up for debate:  research shows office workers only do about 3 hours of actual work - the rest of the day is made up trawling social media and other sites.

Company guidelines might include:

  • Employees communicate their general availability - some workers may prefer to work later while others opt for earlier starts
  • Standard turnaround times for responses, e.g., 24-hours to respond to emails
  • How to handle time sensitive updates

Another great way to avoid frustration or uncertainty is to clearly define goals, recommends Buffer. Buffer is a 100% remote social media management company.

We do know that people at Buffer are definitely working, though. Everyone at Buffer has to deliver on their goals according to what needs each team has. Their output is a sign of their work and consistent output increases trust with managers.

Along with expectations, remote teams need boundaries, too. Exhaustion and burnout are some of the costs that can accompany remote work - when you work virtually, it’s easy to never leave the office.

According to Buffer’s State of Remote Work 2019 report, 22% of remote workers struggle to unplug after work. Even more worrying, 52% of remote workers are less likely to take time off - even if they’re sick, according to this survey.

As a manager, discourage working after hours or weekends.

When boundaries are in place, you reduce anxiety for your remote team - employees don’t feel pressured to respond to messages while they’re having dinner with their families.

2. Communicate Regularly

Communication is vital to creating a healthy remote culture. Think about it: every professional organization depends on open, regular communication to function. Consider that for remote teams, most exchanges will take place over texts, calls, or emails. When team members are separated by time zones, a free flow of communication is critical.

Begin by developing a communications strategy e.g., weekly hangouts and monthly all-hands meetings.

Many remote companies find daily meetings are the most effective for sharing updates about day-to-day agendas. When you’re managing remote employees, use these gatherings to remind teams about the organization’s purpose. Open communication starts from the top so share company progress reports regularly.

When you are managing remote teams, rely on tools like Trello and Slack. These services keep everyone updated, even when communication spans continents.

Provide detailed documentation on using these platforms, or links to training, so staff can get the most out of them. Use platforms like World Time Buddy to coordinate meetings across time zones.

On top of frequent communication, remote companies should establish a shared language and way of communicating, suggests this article in the Harvard Business Review.

“Remote teams need to create new norms that establish clarity in communication. Companies such as Merck have created acronyms for their digital communications like “Four Hour Response (4HR)” and “No Need to Respond (NNTR)” that bring predictability and certainty to virtual conversations.”

3. Use Video Often

Even if you’re not on the same continent, you don’t need to skimp on face to face meetings - video is vital to forge deeper bonds and empathy. After all, non-verbal communication is an important part of human expression.

Research shows we use facial expressions and gestures to convey more meaning than we do with our words.

GitLab consists of an all-remote company across 57 countries and has frequent video meetings, even for brief exchanges.

There is no need to cut back on face-to-face meetings. The technology is readily available and it's easier to use than ever. We're human, we like to converse. Some times it can be critical to talk, even if only for a minute, when all other communication is written.

4. Cultivate Trust and Rapport

Creating rapport is key to building meaningful relationships for remote teams.

Jason Evanish, the founder of Get Lighthouse, said:

You must build rapport with *every* member of your team. Rapport is what will help you work through problems each team member has, trust they can come to you with things important to them, and give you the benefit of the doubt when you make a mistake or an unpopular decision.

Rapport goes hand in hand with increasing engagement. And studies that show engaged employees are more productive and enthusiastic about their work.

To establish rapport among team members, Zapier uses a pair buddy system.

As we've grown, it can be harder to know all your teammates. One easy way to mitigate that is to have folks on the team get paired up with one other teammate at random each week for a short 10-15 minute pair call. We use this to chat about life, work, or whatever random thing seems interesting. Sometimes cool new product features come out of these, other times it's just good fun. Regardless, it helps everyone better know their teammates.

This approach has been shown to improve performance. In software development, programmers who work side by side produce superior code, improve their technical skills, and have better team communication, according to this study.

5. Document Everything

Detailed documentation improves productivity for remote teams.

When teams aren’t in the same office - or even the same time zone- it’s vital that comprehensive documentation is easily available. It improves efficiency - team members don’t need to wait for colleagues to respond to a routine query. Good document collaboration systems also let team members update documents in real-time.

6. Use the Right Technology Tools

Digital tools make remote work possible.

Beyond the basics - like fast internet speeds - the right technology helps you build an efficient, connected virtual office.

When you invest in reliable technology, you increase collaboration, productivity and organization.

There’s a few basic tools to connect your team:

Video conferencing

Technologies like Zoom, Appear.in, and Google Hangout are great for video calls

Instant messaging

A platform like Slack can be used for general messaging and even for virtual social spaces, e.g. a channel to announce birthdays. Other options include Twist and Hangouts Chat.

Project management

Applications like Basecamp, Monday and Asana let you coordinate and plan projects.

Password managers

Remote teams might need to access certain password protected sites. Here password managers like Dashlane and Lastpass can help store passwords.

Document management

Cloud-based document management platforms like eversign lets your team automate paperwork and electronically agreements no matter where they are. Many companies use eversign to improve the hiring and onboarding process.

7. In-Person Meetings

Even if you’re working remotely, in-person gatherings are critical for successful remote teams.

Automattic, the company behind WordPress, has 700 employees across the world.

To strengthen team ties, the company has an annual gathering, which it credits for creating deeper connections between the distributed team.

While these meetings don’t come cheap, remote companies said they’re a worthwhile investment.

The team at Timely, time tracking software, sums it up:

Meeting in person can be expensive, particularly if you’re spread around the globe, but you should still aim to have a full meet-up with your virtual team at least once a year. Even if it’s just an annual get together for a few days, the return on investment can be huge. People are able to put faces to names, communicate frankly and get to know each other as people, not colleagues – things that are integral in promoting a happy and healthy work culture.

Using the Right Digital Tools to Manage Remote Employees

Remote work is worth it for several reasons: your teams enjoy increased flexibility and control over the way they work. In turn, they’re more productive, engaged, and united behind your company mission.

Managing remote employees requires a commitment to open communication, healthy boundaries, and the right technology. Which digital tools do you recommend for remote workers?