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Conquering the 7 biggest challenges of managing a remote workforce

(BUSINESS) Managing a remote workforce is increasingly common, but comes with challenges – let’s discuss setting your team up for success.

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Telecommuting is rapidly becoming a serious option for employers looking to attract and retain top talent. More workers are demanding the option to work from home – at least some of the time – and employers need to take these requests seriously.

Offering a telecommuting option can initially be attractive to employers; lower overhead, less hands-on management, increased productivity and happier employees are all potential benefits. But managing a remote workforce isn’t without its problems.

This article will look at 7 of the biggest challenges of managing remote workers.

1. Productivity

While research has shown that telecommuting leads to increased performance, many managers have a hard time trusting that employees will work efficiently while not in the office. Without the same level of ability to track and monitor outcomes, managers may not always know if work is actually getting done.

This makes having regular check-ins important, as well as having set deadlines for tasks and projects. Give employees flexibility in terms of work hours, but also be clear about your expectations – what exactly you need, and when you expect it to be done.

Productivity-tracking tools such as Time Doctor can help ensure cooperation, and you can even get in-depth email productivity analytics using a tool like EmailAnalytics.

2. Communication

According to a survey by Robert Half Technology, 30 percent of US CIOs cited communication as their biggest problem when managing a remote workforce. Without proper communication, employees and managers can feel disconnected and are more prone to experiencing misunderstandings.

To ensure proper communication, Robert Half suggests 4 tips to improve remote communication:

  • Outlining expectations: Be clear about how often you’d like remote workers to check in and be available to you.
  • Make use of technology: Without access to proper communication tools, collaboration becomes very difficult. Ensure employees are trained to use data-sharing, online meeting and project management tools.
  • Schedule real-time meetings: Build in opportunities for workers to meet face-to-face to improve communication and reduce isolation.
  • Check in with your employees: Working from home without appropriate boundaries can lead to overwork and even burnout. Regularly support and assist employees with maintaining a healthy work/life balance.

3. Data security

Employers are understandably concerned about the potential to lose important data or to experience a security breach on remote computers. Many remote workers regularly work from coffee shops or shared offices, or access the internet via other unsecured wireless networks.

Employers also have no way of restricting outside access to remote workers’ laptops or phones; if an employee allows a friend to use his or her computer while at home, for instance, the employer will never know.

Remote workers should be expected to commit to certain security measures for their work computer and data. This might include installing encryption software, restricting the use of company-issued laptops and keeping company files and devices in a secure location when not being used.

4. Training

One of the first difficulties that many companies face when they introduce telecommuting is training new hires. Even with the most comprehensive training manuals and written procedures, employees can struggle without having the in-person support of colleagues.

Having a training program in place is critical when managing a remote workforce. In addition, assign a mentor to each new hire to answer questions or offer support via phone, email or video chat.

5. Building and maintaining a strong company culture

Communicating and nurturing a strong company culture among a remote workforce can be extremely difficult. Much of a company’s culture is communicated and modeled by leadership; this is obviously more challenging when workers and managers don’t regularly work together in person.

Hiring employees who have already demonstrated similar values and beliefs as the company is a great place to start. Setting up regular one-to-one meetings between workers and management can also help, as well as periodically getting together for casual get-togethers.

6. Collaboration

Working as a team can be difficult at the best of times; but add thousands of miles and multiple time zones to the mix and it can seem nearly impossible. This is why having great tools in place is so important. Workers must be able to communicate and collaborate to share ideas and data seamlessly.

Some tools that can help with collaboration between remote workers include:

  • Skype: Use Skype to hold one-to-one or team meetings, to talk with clients or to hold group chats.
  • Dropbox: Ensure all employees have access to company files, no matter where they’re working from. Dropbox allows them to upload and share files among team members, and ensures that no important data gets lost.
  • Basecamp: This software lets you do virtually anything related to team project management, including file sharing, chatting and assigning tasks to various team members.
  • Join.me: Screen share, make presentations or hold online meetings using a tool like Join.me.

There are also a number of Gmail plugins that can boost collaboration and productivity which are worth checking out.

7. Technological Issues

When working in an office, technological problems can usually be dealt with quickly, and work can resume as normal. For remote workers, however, an issue with a laptop or software can mean hours or even days of lost productivity.

Setting up proper training and access to suitable technology can help mitigate technological challenges, as well as giving workers access to remote tech support when needed. Giving employees additional training for new software and equipment can also help avoid problems later on.

Managing a remote workforce isn’t without its challenges.

But having the proper guidelines, technologies and processes in place can help ensure your remote workers stay productive and happy.

Larry Alton is an independent business consultant specializing in social media trends, business, and entrepreneurship. When he's not consulting, glued to a headset, he's working on one of his many business projects. Follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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Business News

Survey indicates that small businesses are optimistic despite COVID-19

(BUSINESS NEWS) Facebook survey captures tumult of spring 2020 on small and medium business, with a dash of optimism going into the summer.

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This story contains information that probably will not evoke shock and awe by now, but is nonetheless upsetting. Stop now and check to see if you need a news cycle break before ingesting more garbage depressive news about the economy – but if you can wade through it, I promise it ends on a high note!

Though Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is running amuck in the political world like one of those signs at restaurants that say “unattended children will be given ice cream and a puppy,” Facebook continues to effectively build an online community of more than 2.6 billion people worldwide – including more than half of the population in the United States. Given their audience and ease of access to business owners, they decided to use their powers for good for once to survey small and medium businesses.

The survey returned responses from 38,078 business owners and managers, 39,104 employees, and 8,694 personal enterprises in the United States (total of 85,876 respondents). Respondents’ industries spanned manufacturing, retail, services, logistics, hospitality, construction, and agriculture. Thirty-three percent of businesses were urban, forty-two percent were urban, and twenty-five percent were rural.

Here’s where it gets depressing: thirty-one percent of businesses reported closing in the last three months, with 71 percent of those closing since March 1. For personal businesses, 52 percent are closed. Of those businesses still operating, 60 percent reported a reduced workload, and 60 percent also report struggling with finances. Employee wages, bills, and rent were the top areas of financial concern.

So how is this important segment of the economy surviving the crisis? Forty-one percent of business owners and managers said they could pull from personal savings, but 45 percent said zero-interest loans were the most helpful option to subsidize lost business.

Unsurprisingly, 79% of businesses say they have made some change to operations to accommodate their customers and keep things moving, like using digital tools and delivery services.

The survey found some interesting geographical differences, for example, that businesses in the Southeast have made slightly more physical adjustments to business like offering curbside pickup and home delivery. They also found differences in strategy by leadership gender: “Businesses led by women are more likely to be using digital tools, particularly with online advertising (43%) and digital payment tools (40%), compared to just 37% and 34%, respectively, of businesses led by men.” And the differences don’t stop at the strategic level. More women owner-managers (33%) reported that managing life in a pandemic at home was affecting their ability to focus on work than men (25%).

Amongst all the chaos, people are optimistic about the future. In fact, 57% of owner-managers are optimistic or extremely optimistic about the future of business. For employees, the results were surprisingly similar. Even though only 45% of SMB owner-managers and 32% of personal businesses reported that they would rehire the same workers when their businesses reopened, 59% of both the employed and unemployed were at least somewhat optimistic about their future employment.

And now for a quote from President Barack Obama’s 2008 New Hampshire Primary speech amidst our last recession, without a smidge of tacky irony or liberal preaching: “We’ve been warned against offering the people of this nation false hope. But in the unlikely story that is America, there has never been anything false about hope. For when we have faced down impossible odds; when we’ve been told we’re not ready, or that we shouldn’t try, or that we can’t, generations of Americans have responded with a simple creed that sums up the spirit of a people: ‘Yes we can.’”

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Who will get to work from home once COVID-19 stay-home orders are over?

(BUSINESS NEWS) Many large tech firms review and update their work from home policies. This could be presented as THE biggest work perk of 2021.

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The large tech firms that we all know and use frequently are making big announcements on their timing and policies for their employees to work from home as updates on COVID-19 come in.

Square and Twitter have said many employees will work from home indefinitely – even after states begin to open back up. Google, Facebook, and Microsoft have all extended dates on returning to offices. You can read more details here on The Verge.

Let’s break down some pros and cons – especially if this means that working from home will become the hottest recruiting tool in the future. Like ping pong tables and Friday at 4pm beer carts once were.

Some high-level things that contribute to why people love (or tolerate) their W2 jobs:

  • They like the PEOPLE they work with
  • They have a feeling of purpose, and genuinely enjoy the work
  • There are miscellaneous perks (gym membership reimbursement, free cafeterias, personal development workshops, tuition reimbursement, travel opportunities)
  • Their employer helps to pay for healthcare benefits, and makes 401K contributions
  • Their team rotates, and they get to work from home once in a while*

*This is nice to allow some flexibility. Employees can choose to treat their morning how they would like (maybe wake up a little later, or enjoy their coffee at a coffee shop). It allows them to not rush out the door to sit in traffic, or on the bus or train. They can take the day off of wearing real pants, and work in pajamas. Heck, they can even save time on Saturday or Sunday by doing the laundry on their work from home (WFH) day. It could also be a great opportunity to fit in doctor appointments, or have real quality focus time – missing less of the work day.

This is NOT an implication that people work less that day, in fact working from home, you usually work more because there are not things that force you to break up the day like the commute, meetings, or lunch with your colleagues.

Some high-level things that might contribute to the desire to be an entrepreneur:

  • Your work is a main piece of your identity – usually being a product or service that YOU created, and it leverages a perfect marriage of your talents, skills, and passions
  • You likely get to be your own boss, and make your own creative decisions
  • You constantly have the opportunity to learn, and this can be great for those who love the constant change and challenges
  • It’s just never really worked out for you to work for someone else, or for a corporation
  • Something drives you to build something of your own
  • Working from home* in all its glory

*A common misconception of the entrepreneurship or freelance lifestyle is that you work from home or a coffee shop, and it’s oh so very sexy and freeing, and you get to do whatever you want whenever you want. While arguably, yes, you do have more control over your schedule, and there are perks to your own business; likely you are working 24/7, and wearing every single hat from the Producer to Customer Services to Finance to the Accounting department. This requires you to be really open to learning or knowing what you don’t know, and possibly hiring experts.

So, moving forward, will the “you can work remotely! From wherever you’d like” become the hottest recruiting trend of 2021? Here’s why we predict that may not be the best way to move forward.

  1. People are social creatures. Working from home sporadically vs 100% of the time are two completely different things. You could possibly lose the momentum with your teams if they no longer know and trust one another. Plus, no doubt there will be turn-over, and when there are numerous parts and teams, it can be helpful for them to have in person experiences together.
  2. Does this make sense for the commercial real estate industry, and the leases that have been signed? It’s unlikely that many large corporations just perfectly timed their leases that align with COVID-19. Many will likely want to bring people back just for that fact.
  3. All of this takes an enormous amount of money, additional tech support, and infrastructure, (not to mention mailing costs for all office equipment, etc.) and it’s not possible that only the most profitable firms will prevail and be able to do this.
  4. How would large cities (read: high cost of living) like the Bay Area be able to retain talent, and/or why would you pay to live there if you can live anywhere. This could drastically shift urban planning and development.

We just don’t see it moving all the way to the extreme of all knowledge workers working from home indefinitely. If you want to see how people are feeling about working from home, you have to check out this Buzzfeed article, “Zoom Fatigue is Real, And You Probably Have It If You Relate to These 16 Tweets.”

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Weight Watchers lays off 4K employees on a brief Zoom call #cold

(BUSINESS NEWS) WW fires thousands of employees over Zoom, no questions asked or answered. So much for Wellness that Works, live up to your motto.

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WW International, formerly known as Weight Watchers, fired thousands of employees on a 3-minute phone call on Thursday, May 14. The call was muted so participants could not ask questions. Employee emails were closed by the weekend.

It is unclear exactly how many employees were let go, with some reporting up to 4,000. WW has declined to report the number. Laid off employees were both part-time and full-time. Some had been working for WW for more than a decade.

WW has been slowly shifting its services online, including building a comprehensive app for users to track their food. Founded in 1963, the weight loss company has come a long way from paper-and-pencil weight tracking. In 2018, the company changed its name from Weight Watchers to WW, adopting the slogan “Wellness that Works,” in a move to fully embrace the trendy wellness and self-care movements that have gripped younger audiences.

CFO Nick Hotchkin said, “It wasn’t practical to have all of the conversations be one on one.”

WW has staked its claim on empathy. They have cultivated a community of people motivated to lose weight, and support others on the same journey to also live a healthier lifestyle. Many WW employees are former customers who were so committed to the mission they wanted to join the community as a coach or meeting leader. The company offered many part-time roles that fit the schedules of full-time mothers, their primary demographic of clients from its inception.

Firing swaths of employees over Zoom calls is the latest form of cruelty in the employment chaos that the coronavirus pandemic has inflicted on the economy. But companies can make choices – especially international mega-companies that bring in more than a billion dollars in revenue annually.

Has WW no sense of irony? Just two days before this call, WW announced a free, four-week virtual experience led by Oprah Winfrey, a WW investor, client, and champion.

“Now, it’s more important than ever to be and stay well and strong. Together, let’s reset, refocus and find clarity in what matters most,” Oprah said of the program. Apparently, thousands of employees are not considered an asset to the togetherness of this occasion.

Of course, WW like many other companies has a right to let go employees in anticipation of changes in business. But if caring for your employees, and conducting layoffs with empathy, grace, and compassion is not on the list of “what matters most,” then WW is sorely lacking mission alignment. It is severely disappointing to see a company driven by a compassionate mission act in such a callous way.

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