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How do you communicate effectively with staff telecommuters when distance, work hours, and even time zones may separate you? And what about managing freelancers and other independent contractors who work remotely but don’t officially report to you?
To find out, career-intelligence.com talked to some people who do it every day. We discovered that it all comes down to three “Cs”: communication, connection, and commitment.
Talk, Talk, Talk
Success in any job situation depends on effective communication, but this becomes even more important when employees or contractors are working remotely. You can’t just walk around the corner to catch up with remote team members, so you must find ways to be more strategic in your approach to communication and benchmarking.
Ray White, chief performance officer at ICUC, a 100% virtual company, suggests improving communication by asking off-site employees and virtual contractors to provide you with a list of what they plan to accomplish each day, week, or month depending on their level. “They make the list because it helps them feel autonomy, a key reason they want to telecommute,” says White. “Expectations have to be very clear and very measurable.”
Another communications strategy that White advocates is requesting telecommuters to report and provide examples of their accomplishments on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis. “It should be aligned to the initial goals and expectations document they put together,” says White. “Show them that you trust them and that you value them having control of their time. You just have to hold them accountable. It is part of your job and it helps them be successful.”
When specifically managing freelancers and contractors, the advice is very similar to managing staff telecommuters in that communication is an essential ingredient, according to Sara Fell, CEO and founder of FlexJobs.com. “You will need some sort of contract or policy in place before work begins,” says Fell. “How often will you hear from the contractor? What is the scope of the work to be completed? You can’t necessarily dictate work hours, but you can ask for details about when you can reach them, how often they’ll be focused on your work, and how many other projects they have going on.” And just like with telecommuters, Fell reiterates that checking in with freelancers regularly (several times a week) is a great idea to make sure everything is staying on track.
Here are some other tips that White suggests for successfully communicating with your virtual workforce:
One key part of communication is carving out connection time. This can be difficult when your employees or contractors are “out of sight.” To ensure they aren’t “out of mind” as well, Diane Gayeski, PhD, dean of the Roy H Park School of Communications at Ithaca College, recommends giving them significant face time as part of their on-boarding process.
Once they are up and running, Gayeski suggests keeping the connection open by having Skype run in the background on your computer and phone when you’re available. “Encourage remote workers to ‘drop in’ to talk to you on Skype like they would if they saw your office door open,” she says. “Don’t only have formal conversations.” Gayeski adds that video chats like Skype or Google Hangouts help both managers and employees to read each other’s body language and avoid multitasking while talking.
When connecting with remote staff and independent contractors, also be sensitive to time differences. “Don’t always schedule calls and meetings at the convenience of the head office,” says Gayeski. “Spend time at their location several times a year, and shadow them if possible.”
In addition to making sure that you and other key staff members connect with the remote workers in your group, White also recommends connecting them with other virtual employees and telecommuters. “This will ensure that they have someone besides you to talk to and ask questions.”
Show and Demand Commitment
Positive communication and connection can only occur in an environment of trust and respect that leads to ongoing commitment. Again, this needs to flow both ways—from the supervisor to employees, and back again.
Lawrence Polsky, managing partner at PeopleNRG.com, notes that not everyone is cut out to work virtually. Some may lack the skills or maturity to succeed with a remote arrangement. If you’ve been struggling to achieve flow with the first two “C’s,” you may need to consider whether your virtual employee is right for the job.
“Average employees don’t cut it virtually,” says Polsky. “The lesson for every leader is this: the same person who can get work done with you down the hall may not be able to succeed virtually. You need to step up your expectations—and sometimes your hiring—to get the right people to succeed in a virtual team.”
By the same token, it makes sense to evaluate your own abilities as a virtual leader. The problem may lie with your techniques rather than your remote team’s abilities. Revisit the tactics suggested in the two “C’s” above—communication and commitment—and ensure that you’re doing everything you can to ensure your remote workers will be successful.
Once you’ve confirmed the commitment of your virtual staff as well as your own, remember to take the time to show it. Ashley Horton, vice-president and national events director for The Anthem Group, which operates in a virtual work environment, finds it important to connect with employees on a personal level. As someone who has worked remotely over the years herself, Horton specifically gives her virtual team advice on what techniques have worked for her.
“Individuals not used to working from home may have a tough time adjusting,” says Horton. “So if upper-level management is able to facilitate the process, it makes it easier for everyone and increases overall productivity of the company.”