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Managing a Remote Team? Lessons from EPS’ Move to Virtual Offices

Stephanie DavisIn February 2015 EPS went “virtual,” closing our brick and mortar corporate offices and transitioning into a company comprised of remote workers. While the shift involved various challenges, many expected and others unforeseen, I can speak on behalf of the EPS community in concluding that the move was a sound one. In addition to saving on corporate overhead, as well as attaining the myriad benefits for those who no longer have to commute, I believe that we are an even more efficient, effective, and yes, happier, team. As my colleague Lisa Dishman considered in last month’s newsletter, 3 Tips to Make Your Remote Working Experience a Positive One, working remotely is not for everyone, and it does require thought and planning on the employee’s part. From the management perspective, the experience of transitioning to a virtual office has taught me a great deal about myself as a leader and about my colleagues as they move out of sight and into home offices. In addition, I continue to learn important lessons about managing a group of workers who are not only remote, but spread out across the country. Here are my top takeaways.

Think Ahead
At EPS we spent a good year planning and executing the transition, from technology to communication to how we would stay connected. We invested in the latest telephone technology that not only allowed support staff to connect and maintain an awareness of one another’s availability, but also includes a mobile app which allows the team to be responsive to clients even when on the move themselves. File sharing too was made seamless through cloud-based technology which allows for easy and secure collaboration across our group. The EPS team communicates throughout the day via email, Skype, and instant messaging for quick updates. Which brings me to….

Engagement as a team is critical and takes effort in any organization, and is especially challenging when you likely don’t physically encounter each other often. Employees who eagerly anticipate working from home (no sitting in traffic, no need for an elaborate business wardrobe, fewer unplanned co-worker interruptions) might unexpectedly find themselves lonely, disconnected, and unclear on their role or how they fit within and matter to the organization. Using technology (instant messaging, texting, email) to connect on a day-to-day basis is the reality of remote teams. In my opinion, it’s also not enough. Our team makes concerted efforts to connect in person. In addition to monthly staff meetings via phone or Skype, we routinely schedule conference calls among assorted team members on special initiatives. We hold regular live meetings among the core corporate staff to tackle larger, shared projects and do strategic planning, the EPS Board meets quarterly to discuss the state of the company, and semi-annually we bring everyone together from across the country to hone our professional skills, and, perhaps most importantly, to reconnect and enjoy each other’s company. 
Some employees will want to connect frequently, while others will be quiet for extended periods of time. There’s no right or wrong way to work remotely, but as a manager, you’ll need to be sensitive to different working styles and the needs of individuals. This alternative way of engaging within the team also underscores how important it is to interview and hire carefully.

Reassess Roles & Performance
Determining what really matters in terms of each employee’s role is vital wherever your team works. What do you expect a given employee to contribute? What does their role require? How does working remotely affect the analysis? Focusing on results -- as opposed to process (or the how) -- is the most productive approach to performance when working remotely. For some employees it might be necessary to adhere to a certain structure (like keeping standard office hours), but for others, it may not. The inherent flexibility of remote work can allow many employees to craft their schedules around times when they do their best work. Think hard about what actually matters for each particular job function to be productive and to accomplish your goals, then clearly communicate those expectations. 

The success of any virtual company will depend on the capacity for trust, and this can be a challenge as the historical confidence that comes with actually seeing an employee at their desk, ostensibly working, is gone. Letting go of strict hours, knowing exactly what everyone is doing at every moment, and concepts like “face time” means taking a leap of faith and trusting your colleagues to get the job done. This does not mean relinquishing accountability, though it does mean that once you’ve reassessed an employee’s role, focusing on results becomes key. 

Be flexible and continually evaluate your workforce. Each remote worker will have different needs with respect to your management of them. If anyone is struggling with officing from home, help them to determine what is and isn’t working about the arrangement. Do they miss interacting with others?  Are there too many personal distractions at home?  If so, explore alternatives like an executive office nearby, which has become a cottage industry offering relatively inexpensive and comfortable options for office space. Alternatively, do they simply need assistance in creating a dedicated or more functional work space?  Do they need encouragement in or training on using technology to engage with their colleagues? As the manager of a remote team, it’s imperative to maintain a dialogue and be open to an evolving work experience.

I routinely check in with the EPS team, and no one wants to go back to commuting to an office each day. To a person, the benefits of working remotely plainly outweigh the drawbacks. The colleagues and clients we support report that our team functions the same or even better and are often surprised to learn that we no longer operate from a central office space. Sure, there are aspects of working in a common office that we all miss. But with a commitment to remaining flexible and a willingness to think outside the box, I’m confident that EPS’ move from conventional to remote offices will afford our team high levels of professional and personal satisfaction and the ability to continue collaborating on work that both inspires us and serves our clients well.

Listen to our accompanying podcast, "Working Remotely? Lessons from EPS", an interview with author and EPS President, Stephanie Davis, Esq., another episode in the EPS' Real Solutions™ podcast series for human resource professionals.