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7 Tips for Managing a Remote Work Force

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While sites like oDesk make it quick and easy to hire remote workers, it can sometimes be a challenge to manage them. Besides the fact that you can’t always meet face-to-face and you can’t see what they’re working on throughout the day, I’ve found that managing remote workers requires a completely different mindset to managing in-office employees. And while it may be more affordable to hire remote workers for some tasks, it can end up more expensive in the long-run if you don’t know how to manage them effectively.

Over the last few years I’ve hired dozens of freelancers and remote workers to help complete all sorts of projects for BigCommerce. In this article, I’ll share seven tips for managing a remote workforce for maximum productivity, efficiency and results.

  1. Communicate what you expect in writing. Once you’ve hired someone, make sure they understand the scope of the project they’ll be working on — and put as much detail as possible in writing. For example, if you want them to create a professional voice over, make sure you write the script for them, document how the voice-over will be used and the tone you’re looking for, and even provide a link to an exmple video online so they understand exactly what you’re looking for.
  2. Provide a bonus when work is completed on time or early. This can work well for designers and other creative roles. A simple example is offering an extra 10 percent if the project is completed one day early, an extra 20 percent if it’s completed two days early, etc. This simple idea can lead to a quicker turn-around time while maintaining quality.
  3. Have a five-minute call/video chat at the beginning of the day. If your project will take weeks or months to complete, then you need to make sure your remote team stays on track and is heading in the right direction. Similar to a daily stand-up meeting in an teams using Agile methodologies, a quick five-minute call or video chat on Skype every morning is a great way to hear progress updates from your team, as well as identify roadblocks that might get in the way of completing your project.
  4. Address problems immediately. It’s easy for a problem to bring remote workers to a halt, so make sure you do whatever it takes to help them work around or solve the problem. In addition to having a quick daily meeting, encourage your workers to contact you immediately if they need help or have questions. You can even give them ways to get input from other members of your remote team so they can solve problems together.
  5. Set a predictable working schedule. If it’s applicable to your project, set a predictable working schedule to help your remote workers feel as though they’re “at work” during a specific time, such as from 9am to 5pm on weekdays even though they’re working from home — this can lead to better productivity and also lets you know when you can reach your workers.  Some people work more effectively between certain hours, so you might want to ask each member of your remote team when they feel they do the best work, and set the schedule accordingly.
  6. Break larger projects up into date-based milestones. Breaking a large project down into smaller, date-based milestones will help keep everyone on track and alert you to any issues before they become insurmountable. For example, break down a three-month web development project into two-week milestones, with a team check-in at each juncture.  This will enable you to easily track and measure for success, and will help your remote team work more efficiently as well.
  7. Provide and track key performance indicators. If you manage your in-office team using key performance indicators (KPIs), why not do the same for your remote team? Before you assign the project, come up with a few (say, three to five) KPIs you can use to track their success on a daily, weekly or monthly basis.  For example, if you’re remotely managing a web designer, and their job is to create a 20-page website, a couple of your KPIs might be number of milestones met on time and number of web pages created per week.

If you’ve managed a remote team with success in the past, I’d love to hear your tips as well.

Mitchell Harper is co-founder of BigCommerce, a leading provider of shopping cart software used by more than 40,000 organizations worldwide. Mitchell has written and published over 300 articles relating to software development, marketing, business, social media and entrepreneurship.

Photo courtesy Flickr user cogdogblog, licensed under CC-BY-2.0.

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5 Responses to “7 Tips for Managing a Remote Work Force”

  1. This is a great post, and I would add one very important point, and that is to have a strong web based project management and collaboration system (like LiquidPlanner, for example – that the entire team can access and use together to solve problems, communicate about tasks, share documents, etc. Especially in a situation where people are not constrained to one workplace and fileserver/network, it is critical to have one place that is easily accessible by all to share documents and log communication.

  2. I’ll have to agree with you about the different mindset. I had a terrible time trusting my first full time virtual employee. Now I have a small team and I just pretty much trust that they put in the time and evaluate it a bit on production.

    I think its good to test different people with small projects to see how they do and pick the best. Its also not a bad idea to have some different people doing similar tasks so you can evaluate how each is performing by having a point of comparison.

    We use google docs (spreadsheets) to manage tasks and coordinate a lot of things, its simple but perfect.

  3. Great tips! I love the morning video chat. I would add that this the perfect opportunity to make sure your teams are running in sync and to create an environment where motivation can thrive. What a perfect chance to foster collaboration. Thanks for the valuable post!

  4. Valid points you’ve got here. Having managed lots of teams in 14 countries, I believe that what works for me is trust and communication. I trust my workers to do their jobs well, I know how to pay fair for quality work, and I make sure that goals are set crystal clear before anyone works on a project. Overall, I hire workers who are ‘passionate’ about what they do. Passion makes people excel, where you can get great results while your workers have fun doing what they love.