When we talk about productivity hacks, we tend to devise strategies which will impact the long-term. That’s great for the future, but it can be frustrating when you’re not seeing immediate results, especially if you’re working with a remote team (which doesn’t necessarily have to mean someone in another country, it could be someone in a building down the street or on another floor) and you’re uncertain about the progress they’re making, the goals they’re hitting and their attitude towards your business.
I manage a team of 60 virtual assistants and I’ve learnt that productivity, like anything else, is a habit. It doesn’t have to be stressful or complicated, in fact, it’s the small things that make the biggest difference. And the good news is that working with a virtual team can actually improve employee productivity, according to a report by Aon Consulting some organizations have seen gains of up to 43%. Through research and my own experience of managing multinational, remote teams, I have discovered these key areas that dramatically impact productivity and with the right tools and knowledge, you’ll see the results right away.
As a business leader, your job is to motivate your team whether they’re sitting next to you or they live on the other side of the world. You have to talk to them on a regular basis, include them in your vision, make them excited about the work and confident in their skills. Ideally you need to use Skype so that you’re interacting face to face and can gauge emotion and understanding through facial expressions, if you’re short of time communicate over email, but make sure that your employees know that they can contact you if they’re struggling and that you’re open to conversation.
A study by Gallup found that engagement is highest among employees who have some form (face-to-face, phone, or digital) of communication with their managers on a daily basis and that when employees try to contact their manager, the most engaged employees report that their managers return their call or message within 24hours. An ongoing dialogue encourages an exchange of information, or simply put: if you stay in touch with your remote employees, they’ll stay in touch with you.
But it’s more than just checking in, people are the most motivated when they understand what they’re doing and how that will impact on the business in a larger sense. You have to take the time to explain the context: this is what we’re going to do and this is why. When you’re working with remote employees, that explanation helps them to feel more connected to the wider business and to value their position within the company. This is something I realised working with my first personal assistant, who was highly skilled and experienced, but after the first month of working together, I noticed a drop in her enthusiasm for her work. She was doing everything I asked of her, but whilst I was so impressed at the beginning by her forward thinking initiative, she was now just ticking boxes. Concerned, I called her into a meeting and asked her how we could make her role more fulfilling. She told me that she loved her job, but that she didn’t feel that she was part of the company. We were a fast growing start-up and she wanted to join the journey. This surprised me as I saw her role as one of the most valuable; she was responsible for reaching out to new clients and managing my schedule so that I could stay on top of my increasing workload. Without her, we would have accomplished very little. I now make an effort to properly explain all of the tasks I delegate so rather than just asking someone to do some research into property professionals on LinkedIn, I’ll explain that we’re thinking about developing a new branch of the business and want to better understand the industry’s needs. It makes the work more important to the individual and usually means that the results are better too as the employee understands the goal of the task
Environment has a big part to play in motivation and productivity too, and whilst you don’t have to worry about physical office space with remote employees, you can still support them with tools and software to make their lives easier. It could be as simple as sending out a list of suggested free apps to download or you could offer more detailed and educational booklets that will help them to learn and improve their working methods.
Tool kit: Skype or FaceTime
The other day I was talking to the Emirates customer service team on the phone for over 45 minutes, when I hung up, I received an email asking me how I rated my call with Jo. They asked me to measure my satisfaction based on what I’d hypothetically buy Jo as a thank you. Was it good enough to buy Jo a coffee or a pizza? Now I don’t know whether Emirates will actually buy Jo a pizza (I hope they do), but the important thing was that they were encouraging a display of gratitude from their customers to help motivate their team. More than that, it was a fun and inventive approach, which made me more inclined to offer feedback and the whole process more exciting for their employees.
People want to feel that their work has been recognized and that you appreciate their efforts. The more satisfied and happy your employees are, the harder they’ll work, which is great news for productivity. And it doesn’t have to be anything big or monetary. Praise is free and highly effective, especially when it’s public. Try to encourage your remote workers by giving them shout outs on Google Hangout or whichever application you use to communicate. It’s a positive way to start the working day: “Morning everyone. I just wanted to thank Sue for the awesome graphics she sent me yesterday. Great work!” It makes people feel proud and more likely to achieve again because they know that their work is being appreciated and that you, and the whole team now expects them to meet a certain standard. Employee of the month is another very popular non-monetary incentive and can work just as well with a remote team. It could be another post on a communication board or an email at the end of the month praising the employee with their photograph so that the rest of the team can visualize who they’re working with and identify them as a real person. One of the most common errors managers make when they’re working with a remote team, is not treating them in the same way as in-house employees because they’ve never seen them or met them face-to-face. Building a real sense of culture and community is vital to productivity and the success of your business.
Of course, the nature of incentives may vary depending on your business and individual employees and it’s up to you to experiment with different approaches. There’s a lot of scope to creative with it, and as with anything, if it becomes too repetitive, it’s boring so keep it varied if you can, using a mixture of daily, weekly and monthly incentives, individual and team-based rewards. In our offices, we have daily rewards of sweets and chocolates, then bigger incentives like a bottle of champagne or gift vouchers. I find that incentives based on team participation are helpful in creating a greater sense of togetherness, whilst individual rewards mean that you can encourage employees on a personal level. The most important thing is being clear about what the incentive is and what is required to get it. We also make sure that the incentives are never exclusive so that everyone feels that they’re capable of winning a reward whether it’s for meeting a deadline or showing initiative.
If that all sounds complicated and time consuming, there are lots of employee incentive companies, which can help you develop an effective incentive programme when you’re working with a remote team, such as Reward Gateway which has instant employee recognition features like eCards, award delivery and retail discounts or Hawk Incentives which helps companies to brainstorm ways to make work more enjoyable for employees from certificates and trophies to weekend getaways. The cost of a reward might seem like an unnecessary expense, but if it’s impacting positively on your business’ productivity, it’s more than worth the money. That said, it’s more the thought than the value. Show your employees that you really care.
Tool kit: Google Hangout or Trello for communication, Reward Gateway or Hawk Incentives for incentives.
Most people assume that collaboration is near to impossible when you’re working with a remote team who are potentially based in a handful of different countries, but thanks to technology, over the web collaboration is easy and a very effective way of boosting productivity. The best way to foster a relationship between remote employees is to meet over Skype or FaceTime regularly for team meetings where everyone is visible and has the chance to voice their thoughts and concerns. Research by Harvard Business Review found that team members collaborate more easily and naturally if they perceive themselves as being alike. If employees are able to visualize each other, they’re more likely to be able to identify with one another and build a sense of togetherness. What’s important to remember here though is that having too many meetings tends to be counterproductive as it cuts back on the actual working time. When you do schedule a meeting, make sure everyone is prepared and that people are taking notes and coming up with a plan for action so that you don’t have to repeat the same meeting the following week.
Even without meetings, it’s still important that your remote team stays in constant communication, whilst they might not be working on a project together at that moment they can still share knowledge, learn from one another, share resources and help one another to meet deadlines. Try opening a chat room with apps like Slack or Hip Chat. Effectively, you’re creating a virtual space for water cooler conversation, which will make remote employees feel like they’re truly part of a team and your company. Setting guidelines for team interaction can also be helpful, research shows that rules can reduce uncertainty therefore making employees feel more confident and trusting in one another. For example, you might what to agree on how quickly team members should be responding to emails and queries and make it clear that when you’re on a team conference call, you expect full attention from every member of the team. If you’re using video, it’s much more difficult for people to get away with multitasking, but keep asking questions and drawing people into the conversation so that everyone is engaged. It’s a waste of your time and theirs if no-one is actually listening.
Tool kit: Slack or Hip Chat
Working with an ineffective process is the number one block to productivity. You have to review your processes on a case by case basis as it may be different for each client. We recently had to restructure our processes with one client as it was taking far too long for us to receive feedback and when it was being passed through various people, it was tending to loose clarity and direction. Look for what can be cut out to make the process as effective and streamlined as possible. When you’re working with people in lots of different offices or countries, you should be making the most of the technology that’s now available to help companies with productive project management. We use Basecamp as a kind of virtual HQ, to centralize all of our processes and to make sure that everyone knows what’s going on. It just means that instead of having to use seven different applications (one for communication, one for organization, one for filing etc.), it all gets done in one place, which is faster and way more effective as nothing drops off unnoticed. Far too many businesses, use too many applications in a desperate attempt to boost productivity, but in most cases, it means you end up duplicating processes. Do your research and experiment with what works best for you, but don’t keep switching between apps, make a choice and implement it.
Streamlining processes also refers to communication. There are so many different ways to communicate and it will depend on the nature of your business, but if you’re trying to describe something visual for example, like a website design or a brochure, it doesn’t really make much sense to be communicating what you want doing in words over email. You’ll get there in the end, but there’s likely to be a lot of back and forth in-between which wastes time and is counterproductive. When I’m speaking with remote employees, I often use the app LightShot, which allows me to take a screen grab of whatever I’m trying to describe and to annotate it, circling key words or using arrows to highlight particular areas. When it comes to conference calling, choose systems that don’t require access codes to minimize time wasted trying to connect, there are even some systems that actually measure engagement by monitoring the time each individual spends talking versus listening. It’s about finding ways to increase clarity and simplify.
Tool kit: Basecamp, LightShot
We’ve already talked about the power of public motivation and incentives to make people feel proud of what they’re achieving, but the opposite can also be effective. To be clear here, I’m not talking about cyber bullying or trolling or using fear; I’m talking about gentle exposure that makes your employee aware that their progress is being noticed not just by you, but by everyone. Clocking hours is a good example. If you use an app, such as Hive Desk, for your remote employees to log their hours on a public time sheet, it makes it very obvious who’s pulling their weight and who’s isn’t without you having to say anything at all.
It’s the same with incentives, whilst the people who are achieving feel encouraged by their achievements, the people who aren’t will soon feel embarrassed if they’re consistently not hitting targets and they’re aware that other people are monitoring their progress. Instead of consistently criticizing an employee or voicing disappointment, it can sometimes be more effective to take a subtler approach and utilize the power of the team. No one wants to be the person who’s holding the team back. Be very careful here though that you’re fostering healthy competition rather than creating a stressful or humiliating environment, which brings people and productivity down. Keep it light hearted and fun. For example, if you’re wanting to encourage your remote employees to take the initiative more regularly, try creating a point system which publically displays the amount of points each employee has accumulated.
According to Ashley Merryman, co-author of Top Dog: the Science of Winning and Losing, competition drives creativity: “Whether professional musicians or school children, studies have shown competition fuels creativity and even improves the quality of the work produced. More than that, the skills that make you a great competitor – such as a willingness to push boundaries, trust one’s instincts, problem-solve – those are the same skills needed for innovation.” But too much competition creates fear, which leads to distrust and manipulative behaviour: a dog-eat-dog culture. Focus on what really impacts business results rather than who displays their research the most neatly.
Tool kit: Hive Desk
This goes back to communication. Employees, remote or not, crave feedback not just because it makes them feel good when they receive praise, but because it helps them to learn and progress. Meetings should be held regularly, one on one, but there should also be space for your remote employees to offer their feedback on the business and your management techniques. They’re the ones who are doing the ground work so they’re the ones you should be listening to: What’s working? What’s not working? To keep improving productivity and your company’s success, your employees need to be listening to you and you need to be listening them.
TinyPulse is a virtual employee feedback system, which uses a mixture of management deployed surveys and “cheers” prompted by colleagues to encourage frequent communication within the company. Each week, management can send out one question that encourages employees to rate or respond with their opinion. It’s a fast and painless way of receiving feedback and helps to create a strong company culture. To kick-start the process, why not send out a question today, such as: What can we do to help you to be more productive?
Tool kit: TinyPulse
Time and time again I see even the most skilled virtual teams failing to meet their potential because managers approach their leadership the wrong way, and because they’re not working with the best technology. Whenever my clients ask me how they should manage their team, I always tell them: in exactly the same way as you treat your in-house team. Remote workers need and deserve the same attention as any other employee; if you’re not putting in the effort, why should they? Invest in their happiness and satisfaction, listen to their feedback, make the work fun and interesting where you can and incentivize to encourage them to push themselves beyond what they’re asked.
Of course, where it differs is how you communicate – here I’m talking about conversation, sharing documents, brainstorming, all of that. Using too many different programmes or apps, or the wrong kind of tech is the single biggest hurdle to the productivity of a remote team. Think about it like this: you might have hired the most qualified and experienced employees in the world, but if they’re uncertain where they should be sharing information, they’re unfamiliar with the software or they’re having to duplicate their processes depending on who and where they’re sending it to, they’ll never be able to achieve their optimum productivity. In this article, I’ve suggested productivity hacks and some of the applications we use regularly, but it depends on the nature of your business and on your employees. It’s not about what’s top rated or being blogged about, it’s about making processes as simple, efficient and clear as possible.
About the Author:
Richard Walton is the Founder of AVirtual a company that provides part time PAs to small business, entrepreneurs and start-ups. He is regularly featured in the press talking about topics such as work life balance, productivity and how to work with a part time PA.