HR and the Distributed Workforce: Working Apart Together (5 Tips)

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Keeping your employees engaged is tough under any circumstances. Doing so when your organization is working with a distributed workforce is even tougher. It’s not just about figuring out how to get the best out of every single individual. No, it’s about getting everyone to work together as a team, too. It’s up to recruiters and hiring managers to find the right people in order to create a high-performing team.

As I said, a tough job.

But a necessary one at the same time.

On the one hand, a rapidly growing aging workforce is forcing companies to look at options other than hiring fulltime, onsite employees. Younger generations of workers – on the other hand – are increasingly choosing to work on their own terms. Hence preferring freelance, temp – or other types of gig economy contracts over the once so desired permanent employment.

Finally, those people who do still want to work ‘old school’ also expect their employer to offer them the opportunity to work remotely. So one way or the other, the distributed workforce is here to stay. Which means HR will have to find a way to make this working apart together thing work.

Distributed workforce statistics

Regular readers of our blog know we love to throw in some interesting statistics whenever we can. Just last week, CIPHR published an article about remote working statistics.

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Here’s a sample of their findings:

  • In a survey by freelancing platform Upwork, hiring managers predicted that 38% of their full-time, permanent staff will work remotely within the next 10 years.
  • 70% of UK workers find it important that organizations allow their employees to work remotely.
  • 76% of US workers prefer to do important tasks in other places than the office and 82% would be more loyal to their current employer if the organization had remote working options.

And a few additional distributed workforce statistics from Buffer and Upwork to complete the picture:

  • 90% of remote workers plan to work remotely for the rest of their careers. 94% encourages others to try remote working too.
  • 53% of managers say companies are embracing the distributed workforce (therefore hiring more freelancers, temps, agency workers etc.) but;
  • 57% says their company lacks a remote work policy.

5 Best Practices of Working with a Distributed Workforce

In today’s article, we’ll look at 5 best practices of working with a distributed workforce. They’ll give you an idea about how to make working apart together a success. 

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In this Learning Bite, we share five tips on how to best work with a
distributed workforce. 

1. Hire the right people

When you’re building a distributed team, it’s important to keep a couple of things in mind. First of all, remote work isn’t for everyone. According to Buffer’s State of Remote Work 2018 survey, loneliness, collaborating – or actually a lack of – and distractions at home are the main things remote workers struggle with.

Secondly, for a distributed team to function, its members need to have a high degree of self-discipline. After all, they’re not surrounded by hard-working, inspiring colleagues. At least not physically. Neither is there a manager around whose presence alone would be enough to finally get them started on that tedious task.   

Pro tip: When you’re recruiting people to work in a distributed team, check if the applicant has previous experience with remote work and let them do a test assignment.

2. Clear expectations

There are several elements that play a role here. Hiring someone to join a distributed team is different from hiring someone to join a team that’s based in an office together (obviously). Make sure your job advert is as unambiguous as possible to avoid people getting the wrong expectations about the job.

Once a new hire has joined your distributed workforce, it’s important they know exactly what is expected of them. Therefore it can be a good idea for their team manager to:

  • Let them know what their goals are for the coming week;
  • Let them know what tasks they ideally complete on a weekly basis;
  • Let them know to whom they can reach out if they have an issue;
  • Let them know when they are expected to respond to emails etc. and when they should be reachable.

Pro tip: Make sure all team leaders communicate their availability to their distributed team – when can people reach them and via what channel? The same thing goes for the team members, they should also share when they’re available.

3. The Importance of Communication

Of course, clear expectations and communication go hand in hand. And yes, it’s always important to communicate with your employees. But when your organization is working with a remote team, communication is even more essential. After all, your distributed team doesn’t physically share the same space. So if on top of that there’s no or little communication, it’s easy for them to start feeling forgotten, become less engaged, less productive, and eventually leave.

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So, here are some simple rules & tools you can implement in your company’s remote work policy:

  • A team messaging tool is indispensable. Slack is a good example but there are heaps of other team communication tools. While you’re at it, suggest that teams create a ‘fun’ channel in Slack, a place where employees can share random things such as jokes, funny videos and everything else that’s not work-related. A great way to boost engagement!
  • Have regular team meetings and always use video for them. I purposely mention the use of video here. When you’re a distributed team – and, as mentioned above, often work alone – it’s nice to see a bunch of friendly faces every now and then. Even if those friendly faces are looking at you through a screen.
  • Regarding those regular team meetings, try to hold them on different times. This is particularly relevant for distributed teams that are based in different time zones. By changing the meeting times it’s not always the same people based in, for example, the United States that have to get up early or stay online late to attend the meeting. 

4. Face time

You might not be aware of it, but a big part of our communication is non-verbal. Hence the importance of face time…and why I underlined the importance of video calls. Especially if your entire team works remotely, managers will miss out on a lot if they don’t at least regularly see their team members on a video call. It makes building a relationship with your remote workforce a lot easier too.

In your company’s remote work policy, tell managers to aim for a weekly call (minimum) of about an hour with their remote employees. That should give them enough time for a bit of ‘bonding’ chat, work issues, personal matters if they come up, and the remote employee’s career path.

Pro tip: Make sure team managers don’t cancel these calls!

Nothing beats the real thing though. Organize a meetup at least twice a year so that your distributed workforce gets to mingle in real-life. Needless to say, this is a great way to boost employee engagement at the same time. 

5. Team Building

Back to these team messaging tools we mentioned. Some companies use Slack, others use Skype or WhatsApp (or a bunch of other apps) but that’s not the point. When there is no physical office coffee machine where colleagues can joke around and no canteen to have lunch in, these messaging tools are the virtual version of both the coffee machine and the canteen.

What I mean to say is, that when it comes to a distributed workforce, the team building that used to take place in the office, has to take place online. As HR professionals, it’s important to think about this and to come up with a plan. That plan will without a doubt include a combination of technologies – like video and chat tools – but also face-to-face office parties (if we can still call them like that?) a couple of times a year.

On a Final Note

The distributed workforce is on the rise. Propelled by a rapidly growing aging workforce and an in popularity increasing gig economy. On top of that, many ‘old school’ 21st-century employees expect the organization they work for to offer them the opportunity to work remotely.

As a consequence, organizations – and HR – will have to find a way to make this new workforce reality work. These 5 tips are a start, you can use them to create your own remote work policy. However, remember to create a system unique to you, your company, and your distributed workforce.

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