Lessons in Managing a Remote Workforce

by Sara Silver

In March, the COVID-19 crisis forced companies across the U.S. to make significant adjustments as onsite employees transitioned to work-from-home (WFH). While the stay home and shelter-in-place orders are now lifted in most states, many companies are choosing to extend the WFH status of employees. Some companies, such as Twitter and Facebook, are even opting to make WFH a permanent option for employees. As companies navigate operating in a world with COVID-19, business owners and managers must reevaluate past practices and determine how to best move forward.

One could say Silverware, Inc., a Phoenix-based software solution provider, was a pioneer of sorts in leading the charge on adopting work-from-home practices. In 1996, a Silverware employee alerted our management team that her husband’s job was moving them to Iowa. Wanting to keep a valued team member, Silverware decided to try having Jesse work from home and sent her off with a 28K Baud Modem and Pentium Pro Gateway Tower PC. She is still with the company today, working from her Iowa home.

Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, approximately 30 percent of Silverware’s staff worked remotely; another 20 percent split time, working from home two days a week and in the office three days; and the remaining 50 percent worked in the company’s Phoenix or Seattle offices. Today, 100 percent of the staff are working from home and will remain so for the near future.

Transitioning an office-based staff to work from home presents a variety of operational and managerial challenges, as well as benefits. It also raises questions: How can companies monitor productivity and accountability? What are the expectations and guidelines for employees? How do employers and employees manage the division between home and work? How do managers create a cohesive team and continue to keep people engaged and connected?

The past 24 years taught the Silverware team a lot about how companies and organizations can successfully manage a remote workforce. Silverware shares a few lessons they learned for successfully managing employees working from home:

Workspace Set-Up

Consideration must be given to the workplace setup so the employee can focus on work during work hours.

  • Employers should provide appropriate hardware for all employees, including laptop, docking hub, keyboard, mouse, monitors, camera and headset.
  • Employees should create a quiet workspace, preferably with a door, to minimize interruptions.
  • Ultimately, employees should act professionally — clients should be unable to tell that an employee is working from home.

Encouraging Employee Engagement

Creating a cohesive team environment can be a bit more challenging when employees are working remotely, but there are practices that can be put in place to encourage relationship-building and connection.

  • Encourage everyone to use camera — communicating online is more engaging with facial expression.
  • Hold weekly mandatory video staff meetings.
  • Host online “coffee chats” and “lunch and learns” for special topic discussions and team training.
  • Schedule regular office visits for remote employees at least once a quarter (quarantine permitting)
  • Have remote new hires spend their first two weeks training in-office and meeting coworkers (quarantine permitting).

Accountability in Action

Managing a remote workforce requires a level of trust between employer and employee. To lay the foundation, it is important to adopt best practices that help ensure employee accountability. While a survey from Global Workplace Analytics Costs & Benefits shows that telecommuting employees working for large companies are 35–40 percent more productive than their in-office counterparts, it is essential to put measures in place that clearly communicate expectations.

  • Allow employees to create a self-selected work schedule with their manager; this can be a good consideration for both remote and in-office staff.
  • Require employees who are unable to work during agreed hours to notify their managers and team for better visibility.
  • Suggest a “good morning” instant message to connect with co-workers; host regular video calls each week to consistently connect and communicate the status of projects.

Company Culture

With remote workers, company culture needs be even stronger. Strong culture begins with guiding principles and practices. For example, The Silverware Way defines seven habits we employ for all our work. These habits can also be applied for successful remote projects. Developing shared goals and strategies, a unified approach and a sense of community are at the core of any corporate culture. Cultivating a strong company culture can be more of a challenge when employees are working from separate locations, but with some creativity, culture can transcend geographic barriers.

  • Make work a personal experience — provide opportunities for employees to collaborate on projects and professional development to get to know each other.
  • Hold interactive companywide activities and team building such as an online or in-person scavenger hunt where employees are given a list of facts about staff members and they must figure out who is who.
  • Celebrate achievements and recognize individuals.
  • Host Zoom birthdays and anniversary celebrations by sending the honoree a shipment of cupcakes or flowers from the office.
  • Schedule in-person meetings or events at least once a year (quarantine permitting).

One of the biggest challenges for the remote employees is maintaining boundaries between home and work. With work-life lines blurred, it is important for employers to be respectful of after-hours requests and to encourage employees to take time off. While remote employees do not have an onsite manager monitoring productivity, a Gallup survey indicates that remote workers log an average of four more hours per week than onsite workers.

In addition to indicators reporting increased productivity, allowing employees to work from home appears to also generate higher job satisfaction. A national U.S. survey found that 82 percent of employees say they would be more loyal to employers who offer flexible work options and 95 percent of employers say remote work has a major impact on employee retention. Consider Jesse who is still at Silverware more than two decades later.

An organization’s success is largely built on the success of its employees, which is reliant on clear vision from leadership. As business leaders consider how they will move forward to help ensure employee health and safety with COVID-19 and future crises, the potential for managing a remote workforce becomes more likely. One of the biggest business takeaways from the coronavirus pandemic is that what once seemed impossible — managing a fully remote workforce — can not only work, it can work well.

Sara Silver is president and solutions architect for Silverware Inc., a company she founded in 1988. Under her direction, Silverware grew into a leading provider of Microsoft Dynamics NAV/BC. The software her company provides creates customized accounting and business management solutions (ERP) for small and mid-sized businesses throughout the U.S. and includes proprietary solutions for companies in the cannabis industry. Silverware employs a team of consultants and developers currently working entirely from home offices.

 

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