Engaging virtual employees or contractors can be an ideal way for small businesses to grow by attracting workers in a competitive job market or accessing the specific talents they need no matter where the consultant lives.
The Gen Z and millennial generations, in particular, expect a more flexible work environment: In fact, 75 percent of the HR and C-suite executives surveyed agreed that the majority of their workforce will be in an alternative work arrangement by 2025, according to global HR services provider Randstad.
And while regular employees value these flexible arrangements, there is also an emerging cohort of contractors with niche skills who are taking on mission-critical tasks.
“Companies should think about contingent workers as people who can bring a unique skill set, especially when the need for those skills is temporary — for example, to complete a cybersecurity project,” says Jeanne MacDonald, president of talent acquisition solutions at Futurestep, a Korn Ferry company that names the “rise of the gig economy” as one of the 10 top workplace trends for 2017.
But while alternative work arrangements are clearly the wave of the future, managing virtual workers can be tricky. Here are four tips for effectively managing a dispersed team to make sure that out of sight doesn’t lead to out of mind.
1. Be clear about responsibilities, but don’t micromanage
You want to make sure that all team members are pulling their weight, but that might not mean a strict 9-to-5 workday. Maybe your virtual employee prefers to work late at night or early in the morning. As long as the work gets done, cut them some scheduling slack. And remember that contractors likely have clients besides you, so make sure you are clear on the hours you expect them to devote to your company.
However, it’s fine to establish boundaries around when remote workers are expected to be available, such as for team meetings, to provide feedback before a presentation deadline or when needed by clients. To promote collaboration, consider designating a few hours a day when the entire team is expected to be online and available.
2. Employ robust communication technology
It’s easier to replicate the feeling of a gab session in the conference room with innovative technological solutions. Rule No. 1 is to ditch your email as your primary tool since it’s typically an inefficient communication mechanism when multiple team members are collaborating.
Instead, consider project management systems the likes of Basecamp or Asana to track workflows and post updates. Other helpful tools are file sharing programs, including GoogleDocs or Dropbox and conferencing options such as Join.me or WebEx.
3. Hold regular team meetings
“When some or all the members of a team are working in separate locations, it’s all-too-easy to get disconnected from the normal rhythms of work life,” points out Michael D. Watkins, chairman of Genesis Advisers, in an article in Harvard Business Review.
Holding regular team calls, whether via voice or video, can allow for project updates as well as fostering a sense of camaraderie. Kick off each meeting with some informal chat time, to create that “virtual water cooler” ambiance, and then have each employee give a brief report on their work.
If team members are in different time zones, stagger the call time so that one employee isn’t constantly forced to wake up early or join the call during dinnertime. And remember that from time to time, it’s important to host a face-to-face team building activity.
4. Provide regular feedback
With an in-office employee, it might seem natural to give a “Good job!” after a presentation or make small talk about a sales win while you’re waiting for the coffee to brew. But absent those spontaneous encounters with your remote workers, you have to consciously seek out ways to offer feedback and coaching.
Make a concerted effort to send them regular emails or hold weekly one-on-ones to offer those observations that all employees crave.
And remember that without as many informal opportunities to offer positive coaching, any negative feedback you give might resonate even more. That’s why it’s even more important to be thoughtful about delivering bad news to remote employees. Make sure you offer constructive suggestions and end the conversation on a positive note so the worker realizes the criticism is situation-specific and not directed at their overall work product.