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Sep 12, 2013
This article is part of a series called Remote Work.

More and more companies use people not located at the main office. These include people working at home full or part time, as well as at smaller remote offices, or even in other countries.

A good example is Automattic, the company behind WordPress blogging platform (Note: TLNT uses WordPress). Out of their 190 employees nearly all work from home. More than that, they are spread across 141 cities in 28 countries. For them it works out great.

When surveying employees on what they want from manager, requests for working from home and telecommuting always rank in top 10. People often love it.

Leaders on the other hand often worry about having people working remotely.

Set clear objectives

How to get the best of both worlds? How to make it work so that productivity and morale stays high and employees are happy?

It all starts from making sure people know what is expected of them. First think and define the big company and team objectives — 3-­5 in parallel at any time is good, not more.

If possible, these should not change too often. Quarterly or bi­-annual objectives work the best for established companies, monthly or quarterly for startups. Review them as needed and provide tools to have online discussion around the goals.

Goals and objectives give people, even when they are left independent, something to strive for. Even better, if you set up the system so that all of their short­term plans have to then be based on objectives, quite often can you give them independence in choosing the tasks themselves.

Communicate progress, plans and problems

Once the objectives are set, have a regular process for people to communicate how they are progressing. A great methodology is PPP: plans, progress and problems, that has been used successfully for years at companies like Skype, eBay and Facebook. In most cases, the weekly communication cycle works best.

You start with each person defining their plans for the week. Depending on the type of work, 4-­5 weekly goals give the best result, keeping focus and not distracting with small, non-­important tasks. Whenever a task gets completed, it gets moved to progress pile. Something stuck? A “Plan” becomes a “Problem.”

At the end of the week, share your progress, problems and next week’s plans. It’s a good idea to make these public inside the company, so both the leaders as well as other co­-workers see ?them. When done right, everyone on the team sees this as valuable for each­ other, not just a micromanagement tool. Leaders sharing their weekly reports with people help here a lot, as everyone becomes equal.

The advantage of weekly reports is not distracting people with constant interruptions throughout the week. There’s just one concise document that’s brief enough for everyone to read it through.

Listen and give feedback

Whatever tools you as a team leader use to communicate with your remote people, the one key thing to keep in mind is the communication has to flow equally in both ways.

Listen as much as you can ­ even if it’s online ­ and give your guidance and feedback. It should be neither a monologue from the employee to the leader, nor vice versa.

If you do weekly reports, make sure you always review them. If you have weekly calls and people tell their goals and achievements, give your feedback.

Some of the biggest concerns of employees in any HR survey is that managers are not giving enough feedback and guidance. Employees often feel any kind of information they have put together disappears into a black hole. Many think their leaders never read it.

Whatever tools you use, as a leader, always find one-on-one time with the remote workers. You have to make yourself available.

Use collaboration tools

The topic of collaboration tools might need another article. Suffice to say, we live in an amazing era where unlimited amount of great affordable tools for remote communication are available.

  • Share your team documents on Dropbox, BoxWorks or Google Docs, or use new shared documents tools like Quip.
  • Have free voice and video calls on Google Hangouts and Skype, be it one-on-one or in team settings. For informal water cooler talk, use Skype group chats or products like Yammer or Salesforce
  • For informal water cooler talk, use Skype group chats or products like Yammer or Salesforce Chatter.
  • For more structured collaboration, try special services like Weekdone or HipChat. There always task management tools like Asana, Pivotal Tracker or Trello. For project management, Basecamp works well for many.

Luckily all of the tools are nowadays also available on tablets and mobile devices.

?????????????Invest in the home environment

When all of your team works at the office, you normally invest in a great work environment there. There’s no reason it should be any different for those working remotely.

Start with the latest technology. A good computer, tablet and mobile phone are a must ­– and need to be connected to a fast and reliable Internet provider, of course. Make sure the headphones, webcams and speaker phones are top-notch as well.

But, you should also talk to your people and see if they need something else for their home environment, like a  comfortable chair and desk, or even tea, coffee and magazines. Replicate what you would have at your best office location.

Meet — at least once in a while

No tools, however, can replace human contact. Whenever possible, encourage meeting face to face. This can include company or team retreats, just working from the office for one day, having physical brainstorm meetings, or just a lunch or dinner once in a while.

It’s especially important for people to get to know each other early in their days of working for the company. Nothing beats a few beers or singing some karaoke together. People who have done that are always much more communicative with the other on the team, be it asking for advice or just feeling part of the group.

When working with people remotely, never be too rigid. Not being in the same room, and connecting by the use of electronic communication, often amplifies things. Relax and have people do things their own way.

As long the team and company objectives are met, all is good. There’s no need to push one-size-fits-all solutions on everyone.

In most cases, remote employees work out great, so don’t worry and just try it out. It’s a great way to find and engage the best talent available, wherever in the world they may be.

This article is part of a series called Remote Work.