Remote Workforce Management Guide: Basics and Best Practices

Remote Workforce Management Guide: Basics and Best Practices

Many companies have settled into the routine of remote work. A survey by Gallup of U.S.-based workers in remote-capable jobs found that 29% are fully remote, 20% work in the office, and more than half split their time between working in person and working from home.

This mix, with 8 in 10 employees working away from the office at least some of the time, is challenging leaders and managers who feel like they’re trying to find their way in the dark. More than half of managers in the U.S. (57%) told Gallup they’ve had no formal or informal training to help them manage remote or hybrid teams.

We've gathered some basic info and best practices to help you figure out how to manage a remote workforce. Whether you're looking for big-picture strategies or helpful tactics, we've got you covered.

Remote workforce management basics

We’ve all spent time connecting with people remotely, whether through work, school, or keeping up with friends and family. That experience, however, doesn’t make effectively managing remote employees any more intuitive.

What is remote workforce management?

Remote workforce management means adjusting how you interact, communicate, and operate so your team can get the support and resources they need to do great work from anywhere.

It starts with a remote work strategy, a high-level “how to” that explains how an organization will incorporate remote work into its business model. Remote workforce management involves the efforts you take to translate that strategy into the day-to-day work of helping your team succeed.

The good news is that following remote work best practices—a “remote-first mindset”—can support employees regardless of their workplace preferences. Flexible work arrangements can go beyond working from home to include flextime, shift work, job sharing, and other work structures.

Why is a remote workforce better for business?

More than $11,000 per employee—that’s what companies can save each year by enabling people to work from home two or three times per week, according to research by Global Workplace Analytics.

But the case for remote work goes much deeper, with various surveys illustrating the benefits of telecommuting for employees and organizations alike. Here are a few of the positive outcomes surveys have uncovered.

Remote Work Can Support… Why It Helps…
More dedicated workers Having more control over their work schedule and environment can improve an employee’s sense of balance, which in turn helps to build job satisfaction and loyalty.
Increased productivity Workers often log more hours and complete tasks more efficiently when they’re remote—although it's important to encourage firm boundaries to help avoid burnout.
Fewer distractions Remote environments can lead to fewer interruptions, allowing for deep work. Tools like Slack enable both focused work and casual interactions as needed.
Lower expenses for employees Telecommuting can help employees save money by reducing the costs of getting to and from work as well as dressing up for the office. Companies can also save on transit and parking reimbursements.
Better work/life balance The flexibility of remote work gives employees more control over how personal activities, family, and hobbies enhance their overall sense of work/life balance.
Reduced turnover Workers who feel respected and satisfied are less likely to seek new employment, reducing turnover rates for companies.

The collective impact of the many benefits of remote work is happier teams that feel more productive, focused, and valued. Attaining those benefits requires a good foundation, however, and that starts with your company’s leadership and its remote work strategy.

4 things to look for in a remote work strategy

As you get your team set up and moving forward, your company’s remote work strategy will be your guide. The strategy should cover a wide range of considerations, from putting guardrails around your team’s use of technology to exploring how to maintain transparency and accountability. As you familiarize yourself with the strategy, here are a few questions to start with.

1. Who does the remote work policy apply to?

Some types of work are better suited for distributed teams than others—what was described earlier as remote-capable jobs. It’s important to understand how the remote work policy applies to your particular team.

Review the criteria for eligibility as well as exceptions and guidance that can be provided in such situations. Then have an open discussion with your employees about their preferences and how the policy pertains to them.

2. How should goals and expectations be set?

Remote work may mean a shift in how you measure performance. In an office, it can be easy to set SMART goals with a team, then inadvertently link time spent at work with results. When workers are distributed, however, their value is largely driven by performance rather than face time.

A focus on outcomes emphasizes what someone is able to accomplish rather than how, when, or where they do it. This empowers workers to get things done on their own terms, but it also encourages accountability: Failure to deliver puts their value to the organization into question.

“Research consistently demonstrates that the ‘how’ of work is more pivotal than the ‘when’ or ‘where.’ The organizations poised for future success are laser-focused on this ‘how,’ leveraging data and insights to guide their efforts.”

— Dr. Rebecca Hinds, Head of Asana’s Work Innovation Lab
From “
Reinventing Work: Unveiling the Work Innovators’ Blueprint for Success

3. How will data be protected?

Workers need access to information if they’re going to maintain workflows and do the work. But how do you protect data security while avoiding barriers that slow or even block productivity?

Here are a few suggestions:

  • Strong authentication methods. Use multi-factor authentication such as biometrics and passwords to enhance access security.
  • Firewalls. Configure firewalls to control access and protect against unauthorized entry into your network.
  • Data masking for testing and training. Use fake versions of real data for software testing or training to protect sensitive information.
  • Encryption. Encrypt data, especially in the cloud and during transmission, to protect it from unauthorized access.
  • Controlled access. Allow remote workers to access only the data they need, and revoke access to programs and files when they leave the company, finish a project, or move on to a different position.
  • Guidance for personal devices. Explain the risks of using personal devices for work, as well as the necessary precautions, so workers can help guard the security of their systems and devices.

Remember that all data isn’t equal: prioritize what’s needed. Then rank the information by security level. It will typically fall within one of five categories: sensitive, confidential, private, proprietary, or public.

Data risk

Once you’ve mapped your data requirements, the systems that are already in place, and any critical data, consider how you can implement additional security measures for the longer term.

4. How will your distributed team stay in touch?

Effective collaboration for a team that’s spread across multiple locations—maybe even multiple countries—hinges on clear and timely communication. To start:

  • Identify how teams will stay connected and set expectations. A sudden shift to asynchronous communication can be jarring for anyone who’s used to real-time interactions. How will they get the information they need when they need it? Set expectations to help keep responses timely and predictable. Then explore different communication applications to find one that works for your team.
  • Create opportunities to connect. Find ways for your organization to stay connected, share experiences, and celebrate even small wins. For example, when Upwork went through its own remote work redesign, the company started hosting regular “All Hands” video conferences. During these meetings, important announcements and regular updates are shared; they’re recorded and available for anyone unable to join in real time.
  • Pay attention to team communication channels and stay engaged. At the best of times, good communication means clarifying and adjusting messages as needed to avoid misunderstandings. In a dynamic situation, like a transition to remote work, it’s even more important for managers to answer questions, correct rumors, and listen.

Look for communication and collaboration tools that are easy to access and reliable with a minimal learning curve.

How to manage your team remotely

There is no prescription for a perfect workplace setup. That is, after all, why workers put such a high value on flexibility. However, organizations have identified best practices that can help you become a more effective remote manager.

Remote workforce management is complex and specific to each organization; you’ll need to refine your approach to suit the unique requirements of your team. As a starting point, here are a few baseline things to consider:

  • Provide the tools, resources, and support your team needs
  • Find ways to promote collaboration and team building
  • Build a culture of trust and accountability
  • Strengthen your own leadership skills

Provide the tools, resources, and support your team needs

The most basic requirements of remote work tend to look after themselves. After all, if someone doesn’t have the tools or information they need, they’ll find out quickly enough. If you’re onboarding a new team member or formalizing your approach to remote work, however, here are some of the boxes you’ll want to be able to check.

Do your employees have an appropriate setup?

From a practical point of view, not everyone has everything they need to work productively outside of the office. Some workers may need additional equipment, such as a desk, monitor, headset, or other accessories. Others may not have a dedicated workspace.

Do your employees have access to the right tools?
There’s a stack of productivity tools your team can lean on to help manage their day, from project management to communication to staying focused and on track.

Can your employees strengthen and expand their remote work skills?

Many professionals are looking for guidance to optimize their work-from-home experience. Working remotely draws heavily on skills such as self-discipline, time management, technology literacy, digital etiquette (aka netiquette), and online communication.

Nobody gets a 10/10 on all of these essential skills without practice and support. By providing learning opportunities and encouraging your team to keep learning, you can help employees perform better and claim greater control over their day-to-day routines.

How much flexibility does your team really have?

According to a report by Gallup, flexible work can be a boon for productivity, work/life balance, and engagement. However, stress continues to be high, especially among remote and hybrid workers.

But wait, isn’t remote work supposed to help reduce stress and improve balance? Yes—but Gallup found it isn’t enough to say your team can work from home. They also need to have autonomy to establish a routine that works best for them.

“When employees are not working in their preferred ways … they are less engaged, more likely to report burning out at work, and more likely to be watching for or actively seeking a new job,” wrote Jeremie Brecheisen, a partner and managing director of The Gallup CHRO Roundtable.

Find ways to promote collaboration and team building

An individual’s professional network can shrink or grow when they move to remote work. When Microsoft China moved en masse to remote work in 2020, the company discovered that one in six employees expanded their network by approximately 30%.

Microsoft doesn’t explain the change but there’s one assumption that’s safe to make: Those associations were made with purpose. Whether by individual initiative or encouraged by managers, building strong connections with remote colleagues isn’t as spontaneous as it can be in an office. Instead, collaboration needs to be prioritized.

Collaboration means two or more people coordinating their efforts to reach a shared goal. While collaboration isn’t synonymous with effective communication, the two go hand in hand—you need both to achieve good outcomes, keep people engaged, and support overall well-being.

There are many different approaches to remote collaboration. For example, you can:

  • Schedule one-on-one check-ins with your team members
  • Create opportunities for your entire team to connect on a regular basis
  • Plan intentional team-building activities
  • Use asynchronous communication to keep your team informed, regardless of their work schedule, and to improve documentation
  • Establish clear roles within each project so everyone on the team understands what they’re responsible for

As surveys like the one conducted by Gallup reveal, remote work can be stressful. When people can’t access the information or answers they need, working away from the office can exacerbate and even amplify problems because you can’t walk into someone’s office to sort things out.

Build a culture of trust and accountability

A strong remote work culture relies on trust and accountability. As a leader, you need to know your employees will use their autonomy and flexibility to do their best work and let you know about any challenges and successes along the way. Your team also needs to trust—in each other as much as in your commitment to their interests.

As with collaboration, building trust with a remote team starts with purpose. It takes time to develop and it won’t happen spontaneously. To help create the right conditions for your team, consider the following tips:

  • Be available. Communication is pivotal to your team’s success—and that includes creating space if someone asks to talk. Sometimes, people just want to feel heard, whether they have a conflict with a colleague, struggle with working on their own, or are anxious about news in their community.
  • Create a sense of community. Working from home can be isolating—something that can impact well-being as well as productivity. Find ways for your team to stay connected on a regular basis. A regular “coffee break”  or virtual team-building activity can give everyone a chance to catch up and talk about their day. A weekly team meeting can help everyone share successes and stay in the loop.
  • Use video calls to keep your team engaged. Meetings have different dynamics when you aren’t sitting around the same table. Circulate an agenda ahead of time so your team can be prepared, and call on each person so everyone has a chance to speak. Pause frequently to allow time for questions that may come up.
  • Err on the side of overcommunication. Share news and updates frequently—whether it’s updates from the executive team, new industry trends, or a progress report on current projects.
  • Set clear expectations, roles, and responsibilities. Reduce duplicated efforts and cross-communication by defining individual roles and responsibilities for projects and within your team. For example, you might be the only one with remote access to sensitive customer information; another person may be the point person with IT to troubleshoot tech problems.

Remember that mistakes are bound to happen. Establishing a culture of trust and accountability means embracing missteps and miscalculations, acknowledging them, and learning how to avoid repeating them in the future.

“Trust is at the core of fostering distributed team best practices and behaviors. Work Innovators who excel in distributed models are more than twice as likely to trust their employees to get their work done, regardless of where they work. These leaders trust that no matter where their workforce is working, they are making the right decisions on behalf of the organization.”

— From “Reinventing Work: Unveiling the Work Innovators’ Blueprint for Success

Strengthen your own leadership skills

As the manager, one of your responsibilities is to support your team and encourage conditions that will help them flourish. There are many different ways to lead a remote team—test different approaches to see what puts your team on the right track. Here are a few ideas.

Learn how to use the DACI and RACI frameworks to define project roles

Clear lines of communication and responsibility are important for any project, especially ones that are moving forward remotely. There are two frameworks that can help illustrate roles within a project team:

  • DACI (Driver, Approver, Contributors, Informed). Who decides on a course of action for a particular task or function? This matrix helps define decision-making authority.
  • RACI (Responsible, Accountable, Consulted, Informed). Who is responsible for completing a certain task, milestone, or deliverable? This matrix helps define roles and responsibilities.

Create team dashboards that are easy to access

A visual dashboard is a business intelligence tool that helps teams get powerful insights from data. It shows the most important information to understand, analyze, and make decisions about a particular topic or area of work.

While dashboards are particularly helpful for leaders, they can also enable greater transparency and make it easier to track progress and results in real time. By making relevant dashboards available to your team, you can give them a higher-level perspective and keep them updated as they track the movements of key data points.

Set expectations for core activities, processes, and systems

Ambiguity can lead to confusion and stress so when it comes to day-to-day activities it can be helpful to establish expectations for your team. Core activities you may want to discuss include:

  • Scheduling and availability
  • Communication, including response times and channels to use
  • Standardized processes, such as project management
  • Professional development

By clarifying both what’s expected and your team’s capacity to deliver, you can help reduce anxiety and guesswork around activities that are crucial to your team’s ability to succeed.

When remote work doesn’t work

It’s inevitable that you’ll need to overcome challenges when managing remote workers. Here are some common hurdles to watch for.

Common Remote Work Challenges… What You Can Do…
Coordinating schedules Managing a team across different locations and possibly time zones can lead to difficulties in scheduling meetings and ensuring continuous workflow. This is when asynchronous communication becomes essential.
Creating connection Fostering a collaborative culture and team camaraderie is more complex when everyone is remote, which can sometimes impact the work environment and lead to feelings of isolation among team members.
Consistent communication Remote teams rely heavily on digital communication, which can increase the chances of missed messages or misinterpretations—especially with cultural and language differences.
Balancing trust and accountability Managing remote workers takes a careful balance between leaving your team alone and micromanaging them, so you don’t stifle autonomy and productivity.
Coordinating tasks and projects Clearly organizing who is responsible for delivering what and when requires effective project management skills and tools.
Conducting effective team meetings Planning an agenda and encouraging proper video conferencing etiquette can keep online meetings on track and help minimize distractions.
Managing productivity Good processes and regular check-ins can help you keep track of project updates, deadlines, and individual work without the need to micromanage.

Ultimately, you can’t predict where things will go awry. With regular communication, and by being open to feedback, you can monitor for potential issues and take proactive steps before problems get too serious.

Adapt to the changing workforce landscape with Upwork

The skills it takes to thrive as a remote manager, as well as the support and expertise your team needs to stay competitive, can change rapidly. If you include flexible talent in your remote work strategy, you can help your team stay nimble and ready for change.

Consider the impact of artificial intelligence (AI) on every industry. Learning how your company can harness AI, and building capacity within your team so they can use it, can make all the difference.

Get the expertise to navigate new developments with Upwork’s work marketplace, as-needed access to more than 10,000 skills in categories such as website & app development, creative & design, customer support, finance & accounting, consulting, and operations.

Discover independent talent on your own or turn to Upwork Managed Services, project-lifecycle solutions that provide hands-on support that saves time, budget, and resources while guaranteeing the outcomes and deliverables for your program. Or leverage Upwork Enterprise Suite, a powerful platform to find, manage, and work strategically with independent professionals at scale—including the top 1% of talent on Upwork.

Visit upwork.com to see how business can be better when your team has the talent it needs.

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Author Spotlight

Remote Workforce Management Guide: Basics and Best Practices
Amy Sept
Writer & Editor

Amy Sept (@amysept) is an independent writer, editor, and content marketing strategist who’s dedicated to helping businesses of all sizes navigate the future of work. As a Canadian military spouse and slow traveller, she has a lot of hands-on experience with remote work, productivity hacks, and learning how to "go with the flow."

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