Remote working shouldn't be the same as detached working
Governments, multinationals, SMEs - organisations worldwide are turning to remote working as a way to attract talent, retain it, and help their staff manage job and home-life more productively.
Sometimes it's a response to specific events, as in London during the 2012 Olympics. More often, it's a longer-term strategy, as in the Australian government's plan to double by 2020 the number of people who work remotely.
There are still critics of remote working - famously Melissa Mayer of Yahoo, which earlier this year banned remote working. Nevertheless, Yahoo is swimming against the tide - the 2013 Regus Global Economic Indicator found that 45% of people in Singapore (48% worldwide) now work remotely for at least half their working week.
To achieve the possible benefits of remote working - higher productivity, access to talent, lower operating costs, more harmonious work-life balance, and a reduced environmental impact from commuting - businesses need to adapt their management practices.
Of the 26,000-plus respondents surveyed for the Regus Global Economic Indicator, 55% thought that effective management of remote workers is perfectly achievable, as long as managers have suitable training and skills.
At my company, we've helped many of our customers worldwide to adopt remote and flexible working practices. As a result, we have a great bird's eye view of how managers need to adapt. Based on this experience, here are a few suggestions for effective remote management:
1 Set clear goals
Remote managers need to manage goals and outcomes, not tasks. Goals need to be clear, and managers must communicate how outcomes are to be achieved. Meeting agendas have to be more focused and outcome-oriented, and participants must prepare properly. Such changes benefit all companies, not just those adopting remote working practices.
2 Make the most of technology
Successful remote working depends on staff having the necessary devices and connectivity (smartphones, tablets etc) and knowing how to use them. Cloud-based applications can facilitate data access or printing, and there are monitoring and reporting applications for remote managers and employees. Regular videoconferencing can help teams become more cohesive.
But also look into technology safety nets: businesses should anticipate situations where devices need repairs or are lost - you can't have work grind to a halt because someone mislays their phone.
3 Provide the right workplace tools
Remote workers often struggle to work at home because of distractions and lack of professional working facilities or meeting space. Providing staff with access to professional workspace, close to their home or near where they are travelling, can encourage focus and productivity.
4 Communication is vital - just as it always was
Virtual meetings are easy to arrange with video links and videoconferencing. Ensure active participation and encourage feedback and opinion - with conference calls, especially, it's easy for participants to 'switch off'.
One-to-one communication is important too. Managers should offer regular times where remote workers can call to talk about things (similar to an open-door time in a physical office). Remote staff must feel their personal development is taken seriously, so regular scheduled sessions to discuss progress and performance are essential.
5 Be overt about the new rules
New ways of working usually demand a revised contract setting out the parameters for both employees and managers. Remote working requires more reporting, and staff need to understand not just their goals, but the definitions of 'success' and 'failure', and what availability is required of them. Rewards and sanctions should be clearly set out.
6 Promote a corporate culture
It's important that remote staff feel a sense of belonging. Meetings and communication tools help with this; so does a rewards system that doesn't overlook the contribution of remote workers. Social events, making work fun, away days and virtual workshops can also help employees interact and form productive relationships (away from the politics of the office).
7 Be transparent
There's no need to hide remote and flexible working from customers - be upfront about it, and emphasise that it's improving staff retention and productivity. You'll probably find that your customers are doing it too - they may even have remote staff at the same workspaces as your own staff use!
The Yahoo internal memo which cancelled remote working stated: "Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings."
There's truth in this, of course - which is why it's so important for remote managers to encourage communication, meetings and social events. It's just there's no longer any need to commute to the hallway every day of the week.
The views expressed in this column are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect this publication's view, and this article is not edited by Singapore Business Review. The author was not remunerated for this article.
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John has been with Regus for 12 years. Initially beginning as Director for Best Practice in London, he soon moved to Australia to help set-up the Regus Asia-Pacific office. After almost five years of development, he moved with the Asia-Pacific office to Hong Kong and has been based there ever since.