“Phoning it in” used to be an insult—but not anymore. It’s become standard at many businesses for employees to work from home (or from the neighborhood coffee shop). The key was the development of collaborative tools that are more effective than the telephone, including video conferencing (WebEx, Skype, and FaceTime), shared file repositories like Box, and real-time online chat platforms such as Slack, WhatsApp, and Yammer.
What’s convenient for employees can be complicated for you as a manager, though. How do you supervise someone you never see, build team spirit, and keep people who still have to commute from feeling resentful?
The FruitGuys spoke to two managers who tackle this mix of office issues daily: Dory Wilson, who works for a telecommunications company (remotely) as her day job and runs Your Office Mom, a career advice website, as her “side hustle” (she manages remote staff for both); and Crystal Stranger, the cofounder of a bookkeeping software company called PeaCounts, which has remote staff.
They identified five ways to manage blended offices effectively.
1. Set Clear Expectations
Wilson and Stranger both said setting clear expectations is the most important step in managing a blended office. When staff aren’t nearby for constant coaching, you need to spend extra time thinking through exactly how you expect them to behave, and make sure you communicate this clearly.
For example, when do you expect workers to be “on the job”? How quickly should they respond to questions or tasks during those hours? What are your preferred methods of communication? Deadlines need to be more precise, and possibly a bit stricter, than in an office where everyone is physically present. Stranger says, “I try to ask for things to be done a little earlier than when I really need them, to build in a little more preparation time.”
Don’t worry about being too controlling, especially with staff that’s working from home for the first time. It’s possible to have too many choices, which can be overwhelming, and a set routine will be reassuring as well as practical.
2. Treat Everyone the Same
Like parenting siblings, the best advice for managers with both local and remote workers is to impose the same rules on everyone. If your remote workers are in the same time zone as your office, ask them to keep the same hours and share the same response times as your in-office team whenever possible.
Collaboration software is crucial to making blended offices work, and you should expect everyone to use it—even if their desk is 15 feet from yours. When everyone shares their work in progress on the collaboration platform and responds promptly to queries, communication increases and resentment declines.
It’s also important to make sure that remote workers aren’t the only ones given some agency over their schedule. Wilson says that “where possible, I want to give these two people who are stuck on-site a little more flexibility [too]. Maybe it’s possible that they could work at home one day a week.”
3. Maximize Bandwidth
Software makes it possible to work over a distance, but you should use the medium that gives you the most information in any given exchange. Texts, emails, and instant messages are quick but very boiled-down.
A good old-fashioned phone call adds lots of nuance through tone of voice, pauses, and the immediacy of real-time dialogue. Video is even better. Wilson tells the story of an online meeting with a new direct report who told her she didn’t like to use web cameras. Wilson says she told her, “‘Hey, it’s been a long day, I don’t have any makeup on and my hair’s a mess. But I’m here, and let’s talk.’ She flipped on her camera and we ended up having a great conversation. It was just the fact that we were having this first look at one another, and laughing, and having fun. There’s more of a connection there; you’re looking them in the eye. You’re getting to see their body language. When you’re on the phone you don’t have those other cues.”
The best medium of all remains an in-person meeting. If your remote workers are in the same area, you should set up regular in-person get-togethers (monthly or even weekly). Typically these are relaxed meet-ups enlivened by food, drink, or shared activities (whether bowling, karaoke, or an escape room adventure).
If your staff is farther flung, conferences or annual retreats are a step in the right direction.
Both managers also recommend sending cards or handwritten notes for important employee milestones (hiring date anniversaries, big project completions, etc.). In a world of electronic everything, paper mail carries extra weight.
4. Spell It Out
Especially when you’re using limited bandwidth text communication, the burden is on you as a manager to make sure your words are crystal clear and can’t be misinterpreted. You can’t be vague; don’t say you need it “ASAP”—name a date and time. Stranger notes that “you have to be very careful that the things you write can’t be taken a different way from how you write them. It’s a skill you develop over time to reread what you write before you send it to make sure it’s clear and it can’t be read a different way.”
If you have a lot of clout in your organization—especially if you’re the CEO—you need to take care to offset your personal authority (which you might not be fully aware of) with an extra effort to be kind. Stranger pointed out that, as the boss, “I have to be really cognizant to be extra nice, because when people automatically have that fear [of your power], you can alienate them so quickly. Sometimes I feel like I don’t even say anything or do anything, but because it comes across with that authority, people react in a different way.”
5. Make Sure People Work Together
Office politics—which boil down to the less-than-admirable maneuvering and petty resentments of your very human staff—are always difficult to manage. And remote workers are a natural target, since the in-office staff literally never sees them working.
Wilson suggests that you address “the elephant in the room,” which is to say, the natural tendency of in-office staff to think that remote workers are slacking off. She admits feeling this way herself a decade ago, when she was the in-house worker metaphorically glaring at the people who were presumably working from home in their underwear. “And nobody is going to say anything unless a manager brings it up. ‘Yes, we have some people on-site, some people that are [remote], we’re working together, blah blah blah.’ You address it, in part, by setting clear, consistent expectations. And then people understand that everybody’s working together, and everybody’s pulling their weight.”
One very effective way to undercut this literal and figurative distance is to assign a remote staffer to work with someone in-house on a project or report. When people work together, they “see” the effort and skill of their distant colleague and build relationships.
You should also communicate to your off-site staff that they need to make a little extra effort in exchange for their flexibility. As Wilson says: “The remote team members need to increase their visibility without being obnoxious about it. They have to make sure they’re touching base with the manager and different team members, or that they’re trying to be responsive. .... It’s the manager’s responsibility to create an environment where that can happen.”
Mark Saltveit is the author of The Tao of Chip Kelly (Diversion Books: 2013) and Controlled Chaos: Chip Kelly’s Football Revolution (Diversion Books: 2015). His work has appeared in Harvard Magazine, the San Jose Mercury News, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and the Oregonian, as well as on his blog Taoish.org and on Warp, Weft, and Way, an academic blog of Chinese philosophy.