How to Use Technology to Support Remote Teams

The right training and technology can ensure that offsite workers don't feel left out.

By Arlene S. Hirsch September 22, 2017
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Remote work has its advantages—flexibility, low or no overhead costs, and a greater pipeline of applicants from which to hire. But it also has its drawbacks—less interaction, concern about whether employees are staying on task and communication challenges. Because dispersed employees may work in different cities, states, countries and time zones, they rely heavily on technology to connect and collaborate with others. 

Here are tips from supervisors and workplace experts who are getting great results from their remote teams.

Start Strong

Before his software company’s workforce became 100 percent remote, Alex Turnbull, founder and CEO of GrooveHQ, described an office where workers were there but not always present. While people generally worked well together when they needed to, many tuned out with earbuds or headphones as they tackled their day-to-day tasks. Turnbull didn’t see why they needed to be in the same room all the time. 

Relinquishing a physical corporate office eliminated costly real estate expenses, improved work/life balance and expanded the company’s capacity to recruit top talent more quickly. But culture suffered until the staff figured out ways to maintain a sense of community through virtual and in-person meetings.

As a strategy to find the best remote employees, some companies deploy in the hiring process the same technology workers are likely to use on the job. For example, conducting virtual interviews can give employers insight into how the candidate approaches remote work, says Neil Patel, co-founder of Crazy Egg, a Seattle-based analytics company. 

“It’s important to understand why they work remotely and how they work,” Patel says.

A well-designed onboarding process is an effective way to familiarize new employees with the people, processes and tools—such as video technology and collaboration platforms—that they need to succeed, experts say. For example, some organizations use videoconferencing tools to give new employees a virtual tour of workspaces and to introduce them to co-workers even before they start.

It’s also important for company leaders to use technology themselves and provide appropriate training to the entire workforce, says Kevin Eikenberry, founder of The Kevin Eikenberry Group and co-founder of the Remote Leadership Institute in Indianapolis. 

“From the ubiquitous e-mail to how to have meetings, everything is mediated through technology,” he says. 

That’s why he asks new virtual team members to initiate 15- to 30-minute get-to-know-you phone conversations with each existing team member. The calls foster collaboration and take some of the pressure off the manager to be the sole contact person.

Other technologies that organizations provide to support virtual team members include:

  • Just-in-time training platforms.
  • Online collaboration solutions.
  • Web-based performance management systems that evaluate employees’ accomplishments, not the hours they spend on the job.
  • Online recognition platforms.

Tools That Bind

Remote employees and their managers can both struggle with feeling out of touch. While supervisors may want some proof—or reassurance—that employees are actually working, virtual workers worry about being “out of sight, out of mind.” To alleviate such fears, provide support tools to virtual teams to make sure each individual member is in the information loop.

0817 HR tech 3.jpgIn the absence of the kind of watercooler conversations that routinely take place in a traditional workplace, teams can find ways to replicate that experience virtually. Zapier, a distributed software company, fosters connectedness with weekly virtual “hangouts” where team members get together just to talk. The company also has a “Pair Buddies” program that randomly pairs teammates for a 10- to 15-minute phone call to enhance a sense of connectedness.

Many organizations hold regularly scheduled team meetings using Web-based solutions to keep remote workers from feeling alienated and disconnected. For example, GrooveHQ has regular Monday morning “kickoffs” that are a combination of chit-chat about the weekend and discussions about priorities for the upcoming week. Similarly, the team ends the workweek on Fridays with a 30-minute virtual meeting to recap the week’s happenings and share customer feedback.

Teleconferencing alone may not be adequate to keep remote workers connected. Managers should use webcams as well as other video platforms to ensure that remote workers can see their co-workers, and vice versa. Managers can also provide short text and video messages to give them immediate feedback and recognition.

As you help your leadership team think through the options, you will find that there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Determining the best strategy for your remote workforce depends on your company’s business model, its culture, and employees’ needs and attributes.  

Arlene S. Hirsch is a career counselor and author based in Chicago. 
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