I see news about whether or not workers should work remotely on an almost daily basis.  While technology advances have made it practically seamless to work from anywhere, the controversy continues to swirl.  Some articles tout the benefits of flexibility and the desirability of flexible work arrangements and other rue the demise of teamwork and creativity which can be found in a central office.  IBM, a pioneer in working remote, just announced that it was moving 5500 employees in their U.S. Marketing Department out of their homes and back into “co-located” office facilities in order to stimulate creative thought.

As confusing and contradictory as these messages are, it would be foolish to believe that flexible working arrangements are going away.  Study after study show that workplace flexibility is one of the most desired ‘benefits’ for today’s workers and is a key element of a positive workplace culture.  A recent survey of 24,000 workers found that 62% of them were already taking advantage of flexible working practices and that 98% say “anywhere” working has a positive impact on their productivity.  The desire for flexibility is not confined to the millennial workers – it transcends generations and is important to all ages.  My husband and I – both baby boomers – now rank flexibility as our top priority for work.

Working remotely supports better work life balance and provides for more dedicated focus and less wasted time on long commutes.  Workers with flexible arrangements are consistently rated as more productive than those in the office 100% of the time.  Stress levels are lower and remote employees appreciate the flexibility and trust shown by their employers and return it with loyalty and longevity.

As a leader, here are some ways to ensure that organizations reap the benefits of remote workers and minimize the disadvantages.

  1. Consider the role carefully. There are clearly some jobs that are not well suited to anywhere work.  It’s pretty hard to be an effective front desk receptionist while working remote.  However, many jobs have at least some elements that lend themselves well to working anywhere.  Especially in those organizations with a geographically dispersed client base, remote workers can be more flexible in their availability for clients as they are less bound by normal office hours.

As the war for talent increases, working anywhere gives organizations access to a larger and more diverse pool of candidates.  This can become critical for finding the best players.

  1. Be really clear about your performance expectations. The key to successfully managing a team that is working from anywhere is to have a very clear definition of the required outcomes.  Managers need to focus on what needs to be done rather than on when and how.  This can be a big paradigm shift for managers and requires trust in your employees.  But then, if you don’t trust them, why did you hire them in the first place?
  2. Communication with your remote team is critical. While I would put that at the top of any list of effective management practices – it becomes essential with your anywhere team.  Managers must be much more deliberate and diligent in communicating with remote team members.  Regularly scheduled one-on-ones are essential – with a set agenda so that you can each be prepared.  I recommend that these happen at least weekly.  The agenda can be as simple as a) status update for the week; b) plans for next week; c) hurdles or problems that the employee needs assistance with; and d) what else is on your mind?
  3. Internal instant messaging is a great way to keep it current and casual with your team. It will help your remote employees feel connected when you pop off a short note or question to them throughout the day.
  4. If you need a follow-up with one of your team members, jump on your shared calendar and schedule a 15-minute call – as soon as you think of it. Chances are if you just plan to ‘remember to call Josh’, it won’t happen in a timely manner as you get busy and forget.
  5. Schedule regular team meetings to provide business updates, talk about project status, and other items of general interest. If at all possible, hold the meetings using webcams – the visual element adds more depth to the communication.  Webcams also make it more likely that the attendees will be present in the moment and not trying (in vain) to multitask.  A primary advantage of these meetings is that the entire team hears the same message at the same time – there is less likelihood of being misunderstood than if your message gets repeated multiple times.  Invite questions and comments.
  6. Follow-up with an e-mail to document action steps, assignments and deadlines. This helps to create a reference trail for the future and will enable you to hold the team members accountable.
  7. Professional development is important to your team members – whether or not they sit in the same office. Seek out opportunities for the entire team to participate in informational webinars or training sessions.  Ask your team members to give a brief update to the team of any key learnings that they have from sessions that they may attend on their own.  Share meaningful articles and information as it comes your way – these may be fodder for creative new ideas within the team.
  8. Don’t forget about recognition and celebrations. While more challenging, these can also be done remotely.  I know a manager who hosts periodic ‘virtual happy hours’ with his team.  They schedule a time and all sit in front of their webcams with a beverage of their choice.  The conversation is less about work and more about building personal bonds.
  9. Finally, there is simply no substitute for some face-to-face time. If possible, try to bring your entire team together at least once a year.  Combine planning, work, and team building to help strengthen those team bonds.  If this is not possible, perhaps you as the manager can travel to the various remote locations throughout the year to make those connections.

The benefits and appeal of flexible work arrangements are many and they can be effectively and successfully managed.  With thoughtful and deliberate attention to solid management practices, one can successfully harness the energy and creativity of these anywhere workers.  Flexible / anywhere work can be a great way to attract, engage and retain the best and the brightest talent in the market – which will in turn help you as the leader succeed and achieve your goals.