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Overcoming the challenges of managing a remote workforce

FYI, this story is more than a year old

These days, it takes little convincing for executives to see the benefits of establishing a remote workforce, but creating and managing such a workforce comes with plenty of challenges.

It can be unsettling — even scary — to hire employees who you may never meet in person. Building a sense of community can seem like an uphill climb when communication is limited to emails, phone calls, and video conferences among workers located in far-flung home offices and regional offices worldwide.

It's also harder for managers to detect the signs of gradual emotional decline in a worker who may not be suited for life as an isolated, home-bound worker.

Then there's the added challenge of mentoring younger workers without the countless meals and other after-hour engagements that are part and parcel of traditional office culture.

The good news is that many of these hurdles can be surmounted with a bit of know-how and the comfort that comes from doing it repeatedly.

Let's start with hiring. The prospect of interviewing and offering a job to employees you may never meet can be daunting. Faced with the challenge, many executives prefer hiring people who worked with them in the past. While you can find some decent hires that way, you're also missing out on a wider universe of talent.

Having local workers in cost-efficient locales who understand the market and problem solve in their time zone provides a great advantage.

The best way to overcome the emotional hurdle of hiring people you've never met is to simply start doing it. The fear quickly subsides as you realise that there are talented people everywhere and that video conferences can be an acceptable substitute for getting to know a prospective employee.

One great way to build company spirit is to solicit employees' opinions before an online get-together about what they like about each other, as professionals and as people. During the meeting, workers can be called out for the compliments they received from others and might even receive cash bonuses. It's always worth dialling in to an event when you think that you might get recognised for a job well done.

Unfortunately, there will always be employees who aren't cut out for life as a remote worker. Some even struggle emotionally. It's harder to gauge someone's mental health when you can't look them in the eye, observe their general appearance, or read their body language regularly.  For that reason, it's incumbent upon managers to require a certain amount of video contact with workers rather than settling for phone calls, emails and intra-office direct messaging. If a worker consistently refuses to turn their video on, it can be a sign of trouble.

Some executives worry that a sizable number of employees who work remotely may find it easier to not put in enough hours on the job. In 2013, then-Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer made headlines when she banned working from home because of concerns about declining worker productivity. However, the rest of the tech industry didn't follow her lead.

Last year, a study conducted by Microsoft, after COVID-19 forced employees to work from home full-time, determined that on average, workers were putting in four extra hours each week working from home.

For those executives who remain unconvinced, software such as Time Doctor, ActivTrak and Toggl can monitor how much time a person is spending on their work systems. But be warned: that approach can come across as overly invasive since most managers are capable of setting clear work goals that are either achieved or not.

Finally, we come to one of the most challenging obstacles confronting any remote workforce — the ability to train and mentor younger workers. There is truly no substitute for the countless hours a junior-level employer can spend learning the ropes from a caring mentor in a traditional work environment. However, there are ways that mentoring can be achieved remotely through both online training and via less formal video communication.

It comes down to making mentoring a priority for managers and blocking out the time in a week to make it happen. Also, remember that mentoring isn't a one-way street; it's up to those who might be seeking guidance to actively reach out to their superiors. More often than not, that will be a direct supervisor, but it might also be another manager whose work is inspiring.

Building these important work relationships can be awkward in remote work culture. The key to overcoming the challenge is simply taking those initial steps.

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