7 Skills You Need to ManageRemote Employees

Co-located teams are fast becoming commonplace. Technology makes it possible for employees to work from home, a café, or an airplane seat. Employers increasingly offer remote opportunities in order to reduce real estate costs and entice top talent, which often includes tech-savvy millennials eager to embrace digital nomadism. Given that millennials will soon comprise 75 percent of America's labor force, and technology continues to develop exponentially, the trend of remote employment shows no sign of waning. Organizational output will never again be limited by proximity.

But for all the perks of being productive in pajamas, there are challenges. As part of a recent study, VitalSmarts surveyed 1,153 remote employees and found they more often feel undervalued than their onsite associates do. Specifically, remote employees more frequently feel that coworkers talk behind their backs, make changes to projects without warning, lobby against them, and fail to fight for their priorities. What's more, remote employees strain to resolve these concerns. In fact, 84 percent of those surveyed admitted to letting concerns persist for days, while 47 percent let them go unresolved for weeks. Such unresolved feelings of underappreciation impact deadlines, morale, retention, costs, and productivity.

For organizations and employees to reap the rewards of untethered employment, they must create cultures of communication. If our research at VitalSmarts over the past thirty years proves anything, it's that the health and success of any team is determined by the quality of communication between colleagues. Our recent study confirms our earliest findings.

Of the remote employees we surveyed, 853 shared accounts of leaders especially adept at empowering co-located teams, and their responses reveal, again, that communication is key. Here are seven crucial skills managers must demonstrate if they want to foster collaboration and engagement on co-located teams:

1. Check in Regularly

Nearly half of respondents said the most successful managers checked in frequently and regularly. The cadence of the check-ins varied from daily to weekly to bi-weekly but were always consistent and usually entailed a standing one-on-one.

2. See and Hear

One in four respondents said managers who insisted on some face time were more successful. Make a visit to remote employees or schedule a mandatory in-office day once a week, month, quarter, or year. Use this time for team-building. If in-person meetings are not possible, at a minimum use video conferencing technology or pick up the phone to ensure colleagues occasionally see one another's face or hear one another's voice.

3. Exemplify Stellar Communication Skills

Respondents emphasized the importance of general, stellar communication with co-located teams. The most successful managers are good listeners, communicate trust and respect, inquire about workload and progress without micromanaging, and err on the side of over-communicating.

4. Provide Explicit Expectations

When it comes to managing remote teams, being clear about expectations was mandatory. Managers who are direct with their expectations of both remote and onsite employees have happier teams that can consistently meet said expectations.

5. Make Yourself Available

Successful managers are available quickly and at all times of the day. They go above and beyond to maintain an open-door policy, making themselves available across multiple time zones and through multiple means of technology. Remote employees can always count on their managers to respond to pressing concerns.

6. Embrace Technology

Successful managers use multiple means of communication to connect with their remote workers. They don't just resort to phone or email, but are familiar with video conferencing technologies and a variety of services like Skype, Slack, Adobe Connect, and others. They often tailor their communication style and medium to each employee.

7. Prioritize Relationships

Team-building and camaraderie are important for any team, and co-located teams are no exception. Good managers go out of their way to form personal bonds with remote employees. They use check-in time to ask about employees' personal lives, families, and hobbies. They allow time during team meetings for "water cooler" conversation so the whole team can create personal connections and strengthen relationships.

Given the ease and rapidity of modern communications, remote employment is progressively alluring to both employers and employees. Our research shows that unless managers make extra efforts to connect and engage in dialogue, co-located teams can quickly become unhappy and unproductive. Conversely, if managers employ the above skills, they stand a good chance of fostering collaboration, commitment, and cohesion, all of which contribute to a sense of being appreciated and valued.

David Maxfield is a New York Times best-selling author, keynote speaker, and leading social scientist for business performance. He leads the research function at VitalSmarts, a corporate training and leadership development company.