November 25, 2014

Small Business Advice

Firms need new approach to managing remote staff

"A tremendous number of people in America work very hard at something that bores them. Even a rich man thinks he has to go down to the office every day. Not because he likes it but because he can't think of anything else to do." ~ W. H. Auden

Jerry Osteryoung | 2/3/2014

There is a growing trend in business of firms moving away from having a physical presence. This trend is especially prevalent among small and medium-sized firms, but we are starting to see this strategy picking up among larger businesses, too, just at a much slower rate.

Just about every start-up I see gets going without an office. And many of these entrepreneurs are determined to continue to operate without one.

Then there is the telecommuting trend. According to the U.S. Census, more than 6 million people work from home — myself included. The natural evolution of technology has made telecommuting and video chat easier and more affordable, and I think it is safe to say this will be a normal part of business in no time.

Several companies are already offering products specifically for remote workers, such as payroll and HR.

The writing is on the wall. This is coming, and now is the time for managers to adapt to this trend rather than fight it. There are some critical staffing issues you must be prepared for when you manage a remote workforce.

I am dealing with several managers who have a difficult time managing their remote workers. They feel they have no control when their staff is not in the office, where they can see how much work employees are doing.

However, having a staff member within sight is not nearly as important as ensuring you have a method of keeping them accountable. Managers often get hung up on how many hours an employee is working when they really should be concerned with how much work that employee is actually getting done.

Overseeing remote workers takes a new kind of management. I advise any firm moving in this direction to go through training that stresses the importance of communication, accountability and teamwork. These are necessary for all workers, but especially critical for those who work remotely.

Operating from a home office where human interaction is lacking can be challenging for remote workers. Managers must ensure this is not a barrier for the employee by maintaining frequent — but not excessive — communication. The purpose here is not to monitor them, but to remind them they are part of the team and their work is important.

Email is OK for this, but actually talking to your staff is essential. I like video chat because it allows participants to see one another.

Accountability is much more critical for staffers who are off premises than for those in the office. To monitor their progress and ensure they are meeting job requirements, it is important to establish weekly goals.

A third challenge with managing remote workers is preserving the team environment. Each of us wants to feel like we are part of a team, but it is hard for remote workers to feel that way when they are operating on their own island. A culture of strong communication is necessary to counter this isolation. Encourage your staff to communicate often with each other.

Eliminating physical office space and having remote workers may not work for all firms, but go out and see if they are right for yours. If so, just remember, you will need to adopt a new management style to be successful.

You can do this!

Other small business advice columns from Dr. Osteryoung are here.

Jerry Osteryoung is a consultant to businesses - he has directly assisted over 3,000 firms. He is the Jim Moran Professor of Entrepreneurship (Emeritus) and Professor of Finance (Emeritus) at Florida State University. He was the founding Executive Director of The Jim Moran Institute and served in that position from 1995 through 2008. His newest book co-authored with Tim O'Brien, "If You Have Employees, You Really Need This Book," is an Amazon.com bestseller. He can be reached by e-mail at jerry.osteryoung@gmail.com.

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