How To Build (And Sustain) A Remote Workforce

Your best talent might be just out of commuting reach. How to expand your remote workplace, without overreaching your resources.

Despite the 2013 uproar caused by Yahoo CEO Marisa Meyer’s decision to ban the company’s remote working policy, telecommuting is still thriving, and it’s easy to see why. According to Global Workplace Analytics and the Telework Research Network, telecommuting increased 80% from 2005 to 2012 and it’s estimated that regular telecommuters will total 3.9 million by 2016, which is a 21% increase from the current level.

In most cases, to stay truly competitive, hiring the best talent means looking beyond a company’s 50-mile radius. But not all organizations may be ready to expand beyond their existing four walls. So what does it take to foster a truly successful remote working culture?

What to look for during the hiring process.

While every candidate you interview will be unique, there are some commonalities when it comes to strong remote workers. They are fiercely independent, yet committed to their work. And while they are true "self-starters" who can continuously innovate on their own, they are equally skilled at collaborating with others. One way to identify these traits is to look at past work experience.

When hiring for a remote workplace, look for candidates who have exhibited this independence on their resumes, perhaps by launching their own businesses or taking a chance on a startup (bonus points if they stayed on through a successful exit). The ability to make lateral moves within a large company can also be a great indicator that a person seeks out new challenges and performs well at each one.

Let autonomy rule.

Before you attempt to start a remote working environment at your company, ask management if they are really ready to give their remote teams the autonomy they need to do their jobs well. There’s nothing worse than being a remote employee who feels micro-managed from hundreds of miles away, or a manager who constantly questions how much work is actually getting done from remote employees.

Managers should make job responsibilities and expectations clear from the very beginning (before the offer is made), but then feel comfortable instilling in their teams the sense of confidence needed to make even the most challenging decisions on their own.

Get tech right.

Incorporate the right technologies to support the nuances of remote working. No remote employee is an island. Fostering a remote workforce means not only hiring the right people, but also supporting them with the technologies that enable them to collaborate effectively and feel like they’re part of a team. When you’re working from a remote office, there’s no substitute for seeing someone else’s face once in a while, so using video conferences for regular meetings can make a world of difference when it comes to team bonding. Real-time applications such as Google Docs also offer an ideal way to brainstorm across various locations and time zones.

While it can be a large investment, it’s worthwhile for companies who invest in a remote workforce to bring all employees together at least once a year for a few days of bonding and team-building.

These days, your best job candidates could be 50 or 5,000 miles away. With the right attitude and plan in place, relocation packages may be a thing of the past.

Jen Agustin is the senior director of marketing at Bizo, a marketing technology company. Find her on Twitter.

[Image: Flickr user Kathy Ponce]

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  • Great article! The concept of working from home and therefore working online brings with it a whole host of misconceptions from those who don’t do it. It’s a job, just like any other role you may have worked in before. Just because you’re at home doesn’t mean you’ll get away with doing less, if anything, your distance means that productivity and results will be measured even more carefully than working in an office. Technology has advanced a lot and now almost everything you do on the computer can be logged by your employer if they choose – that means there’ll be no invoicing for an extended Wikipedia session. Our company is a remote company based all over the world, and we have an outstanding team who work incredibly hard. Working online isn’t about sitting in your pjs, those who work from home will tell you that in order to make it work, you have to treat home as an office! After all, you’re doing real work – you need a real working environment to be as productive as possible.

  • Good point, Jen! Knowing what the right traits to look for in a remote worker will go a long way to helping you ensure that those you will hire are indeed the best for your organization. Since you are expecting your remote workers to deliver high quality results and meet deadlines, you should also be prepared to pay them right for their hard work.

    Also, building trust for remote employees with time tracking is easy and beneficial for everyone concerned. By providing the individual with the right equipment, support and adjusting your tactics to meet the special needs of the telecommuter, companies can greatly increase productivity and everyone can benefit.

  • I think a huge part of a successful telecommuting program is manager training. Enkata did a study of remote workers compared to in office workers. The most important factor in employee performance turned out not to be the location of the employee, but the skill of the manager.

    Few companies invest in giving managers the tools and training to successfully manage a remote work force.

  • I have been working remotely for over 13 years. (Way before it became popular!). My company, Panoptic Development, is 100% distributed. More and more companies are moving in this direction. ROWE (Result Oriented Work Environment) is key to success. You need to measure goals and accomplishments vs face time. I have written a few blog posts on my experience as a remote worker for over 13 years. Folks who are thinking about working remotely or managers thinking about allowing employees to work remotely might find them interesting.

    My thoughts as a telecommuter: