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Managing a remote workforce

Liz Poad

With new flexible working legislation in place, Liz Poad, Head of Training and Development at multi-brand recruitment organisation, Cordant Group, gives her advice on how managers can lead a remote workforce

In April we saw new government legislation introduced which allows any worker who has been in continual employment for more than six months (26 weeks), the right to request flexible working arrangements from 30 June 2014. This includes flexibility over working hours, time and location and is not dependent upon parental or carer responsibilities. 

The new legislation will give even more impetus to the remote working revolution. Figures from the Office for National Statistics (February 2013) showed that 1.4 million people (5.4 per cent) said they worked mainly at or from home. Meanwhile, statistics from the Trade Union Congress (TUC) show that the number of people working from home rose by 13 per cent in the five years to 2013. 

Legislation aside, changing demographics such as the increase in working parents and older employees, coupled with advances in technology and companies looking for cost efficiencies mean that more and more employees are looking to spend all or some of their time working away from a traditional office environment. 

So how can employers and employees make the most of these new working patterns? Working at home or elsewhere can certainly be convenient. Many argue that the lack of interruptions means increased productivity, whilst the absence of a commute means more time spent working and happier employees. 

The downsides are a loss of creativity and engagement from “water cooler chats”, a risk of isolation, alienation, loss of motivation and therefore performance. 

Companies wanting to reap the rewards of remote working need a strategic approach. Often this requires an entire mindshift amongst employees and managers who may be sceptical about the benefits of remote working. In short, companies can’t just expect to rely on the same management techniques used for leading an office-based team. 

Five practical ways of managing a remote workforce:


Let go and trust people 
It’s a truism that distrust breeds distrust. Treat your employees like children and they are likely to act like children. The best way of increasing trust with remote employees is through planned, frequent but short communication via a variety of means. Be clear about your expectations and set achievable targets and deadlines and give prompt and specific feedback on tasks completed. Make them feel included by setting up opportunities to interact with their peers. Let them know how and when they can contact you.

Positive communications
Understanding employee motivation and engagement is essential. All too often a remote working relationship can break down because communications from a manager is based around problems or issues. Regularly making time to share the positives and explore ideas and opportunities are fundamental to building a successful relationship. Make sure that you praise success and you will increase your employee’s motivation levels.  

Adapt your style
Whether remote or office based, realise and accept that your entire workforce will always be at different levels and therefore require different approaches. An effective way of dealing with this is to split them into three tiers and then adapt your management style to each. An example would be:
a. Top talent (20 per cent) - keep motivated through recognition, praise and continually stretched and challenged so they are constantly developing
b. Middle workforce (70 per cent) which are steady workers, not necessarily ambitious or driven, but are reliable, efficient and do a good job 
c. Bottom section (10 per cent) which is your natural turnover.  

Read between the lines – virtually
It takes a certain kind of manager to be a successful leader of a remote workforce. One of their most important qualities should be the ability to “read between the lines” to judge what is really going on. As so much of your communication will be on the phone or via email, this requires excellent interpersonal skills. 

Continuous personal development
Regularly conduct a skills audit on yourself and your team members to enable you to identify skills and behaviours needed for effective remote management and review areas for further development. Ask your line reports what they would like to see you change or do differently. Including employees in your own development is a strong collaborative approach that builds trust and engagement. 

Finally, remember that managing a flexible workforce is very different but, get it right and it brings big rewards through improved team motivation, engagement and performance. 


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