As pandemic-driven restrictions ease and businesses try to find balance in the “new normal,” companies are drawing on the hard-won gains of the past two years to navigate a way forward. COVID-19 accelerated the digital transformation, resetting the bar for competition across a range of industries.
There’s no roadmap for what comes next. But for many, the future includes the agility of a remote workforce.
While many companies are scaling back their remote operations, nearly half of companies (48%) expect their teams to be partially or fully off-site over the next five years. The challenge is to figure out which strategies will work best for their team.
The principles behind a distributed workforce are much like any other high-performance team: clarity, communication, transparency, and trust.
But co-located teams have the benefit of proximity to smooth over any bumps. When your team spans multiple time zones, locations, and schedules, there’s no room for ambiguity.
While remote work at scale has a tinge of experimentation to it, there are tried-and-true best practices. Consider these 17 suggestions to help build a successful remote workforce that will be ready to meet whatever challenges come their way.
How to build a remote workforce
- Encourage transparency, particularly about remote work
- Align remote work practices with company values
- Develop a remote team structure
- Centralize processes and documentation
- Make daily or weekly meetings an advantage
- Use the right communication tools
- Focus on outcomes
- Find the best candidates for your remote team
- Tie individual objectives to the company’s quarterly and yearly goals
- Agree on roles and responsibilities
- Develop centralized team dashboards
- Foster a culture of team accountability
- Invest in developing team skill sets
- Implement team-building activities
- Don't forget meeting in person
- Encourage your team to use time tracking
- Always use feedback tools
1. Encourage transparency, particularly about remote work
Transparency can be a challenge for leaders, especially in a dynamic situation with no solid answers. However, after too long spent navigating the unknown, employees want information. Any information.
According to a survey by McKinsey & Company, sharing a high-level vision of what work might look like when pandemic restrictions ended was enough to boost employee well-being and productivity. When employees were given more detailed communication about guidelines, policies, expectations, and approaches—even subject to change—they were nearly five times more likely to report an increase in productivity.
The main takeaway? Don’t hesitate to share your plans as you build a remote workforce, even if they aren’t confirmed, and continue to be open about your strategy as you move forward. People can adapt to change; it’s uncertainty that weighs them down.
2. Align remote work practices with company values
Purpose motivates high-performance teams but most companies fail to connect the dots between what they say and what they do. An analysis by MIT Sloan found no correlation between published corporate values and employee experience.
That misalignment can hold any team back, but remote teams are particularly susceptible to feelings of disconnect. In one study, employees who worked remotely most of the time felt nearly two times (182%) less engaged than those who primarily worked in person.
Meanwhile, research shows that purpose matters more than ever.
First, people want their work to have meaning. According to McKinsey & Company, COVID-19 prompted two-thirds of U.S.-based employees to reflect on their purpose in life—and 70% of respondents said their work defines their sense of purpose.
This calibration may be hard to measure but its impact is significant: it affects everything from worker productivity, engagement, loyalty, and retention to individual health, satisfaction, and resilience.
Second, authentic values are increasingly tied to growth. As workers or consumers, people want to connect with organizations that reflect their values. Companies perceived to have a high sense of purpose grow nearly twice as fast as their competitors.
Company values aren’t necessarily defined by where or when workers get things done, but they should be reflected in a team’s dynamics and day-to-day decisions. If a team is already disconnected, going remote will only make that feeling more intense.
3. Develop a remote team structure
The structure of a remote workforce can shape everything from decision making and reporting to workflows, communication, collaboration, and even access to resources. That’s why it’s important to account for a variety of factors, which may include:
- Company values, goals, and business objectives
- The company’s business model (i.e., product lines, market or geographic considerations)
- The company’s workforce model (i.e., working with external talent, internal hierarchy)
- Leadership and reporting structure
- The decision-making process
- Communication and collaboration goals
With so much to consider, a one-size-fits-all solution simply doesn’t exist. In fact, there may not even be one common team structure within an organization, and different team structures may even need to be adjusted and refined as objectives change and different needs emerge.
For teams that aren’t co-located, how the organizational chart looks is often less important than what it communicates.
Remote teams lose visual cues, such as an office floor plan or the ease of a quick chat in the hallway, to confirm who’s doing what. Clarifying the structure of your remote workforce helps remove the guesswork. It helps each member of your team see how they relate to one another, how their contributions and responsibilities support the team, and how they fit within the organization as a whole.
4. Centralize processes and documentation
At a practical level, capturing your team’s critical systems, processes, and workflows minimizes the risks of wasting time, making errors, varying results, and causing accidents. That’s because good documentation supports:
- Transparency. Anyone can see what needs to be done and who’s responsible.
- Performance. A single point of reference reduces trial and error and helps avoid duplication.
- Consistency. Step-by-step guidance helps produce predictable results—even for the newest members of your team.
A formal business process management (BPM) approach can also give a measurable boost to your team’s productivity. According to Forrester, BPM projects for administrative activities can yield 30-50% gains in productivity, while projects that involve knowledge workers can deliver 15-30% gains.
For an effective remote workforce, however, efficiency is just part of the equation. Centralizing this information where it’s easily accessible enables your team to grow and do better through:
- Better collaboration. Defining key processes, at a high level, helps identify areas of overlap and opportunities to reduce duplication.
- Constant improvement. Building on, adapting, and optimizing processes as needed is easier when everyone works from a single reference point.
- Scale. Knowing exactly how to generate consistent results enables your team to work differently, whether by leveraging automation tools or by scaling your team with independent professionals.
How do you decide which processes should be documented?
- Identify. Start by listing core and complex activities that are done on a regular basis such as compiling reports, producing similar types of deliverables, or preparing for events.
- Record. Capture every step of the process, including how to respond to decisions or deviations and clarifying which tools should be used and when.
- Share. Distribute written processes to the entire team and explain where they’re kept, how to follow each process, and why consistency is important.
- Review. Processes are rarely static. They should be reviewed regularly for updates, with a feedback loop put in place so anyone can ask questions and make suggestions to help improve results.
5. Make daily or weekly meetings an advantage
Daily or weekly meetings can be a valuable part of a routine that helps your team communicate, socialize, and stay informed. But those meetings need to add value to your team. According to one recent survey, in a world of pandemic-driven remote work, 92% of employees said meetings were costly and unproductive.
Used wisely, however, you can turn meetings into an advantage. Start by learning how to leverage the strengths of getting everyone together at the same time.
There are two ways to share information with a team: asynchronous and synchronous communication.
Asynchronous communication enables teams to share information and ideas even when their schedules are offset. It relies on tools such as email and other written messages, audio and video recordings, discussion boards, file sharing, notes, surveys, and polls. Asynchronous communication empowers a team to process information on their own time, but isn’t great for dialog since it can take a while to get a response.
Synchronous communication happens in real time through events such as virtual meetings, phone calls, or in-person meetups. Direct interaction is the biggest benefit of synchronous communication: Feedback is immediate, brainstorming and conversations easier, and personal and professional connections can be made or strengthened. However, the logistics of synchronous communication can get complicated—and it excludes anyone who isn’t able to reconfigure their schedule.
In many situations, asynchronous communication is the best way to interact. However, that doesn’t mean an effective remote workforce avoids meetings—it means the goal should be to make meetings as valuable as possible.
Here are a few ideas:
- Focus on your meeting’s purpose. Create an agenda so the flow and intended outcomes are clear and up-front. If a meeting’s purpose will not be met, cancel it so your team can focus their energy on other commitments.
- Narrow the guest list. Consider the roles and responsibilities of the people you invite to a meeting. Clearly define who needs to be there, who’s optional, and who doesn’t need to be on the list at all.
- Prioritize interactions over announcements. Meetings help keep team members on the same page, but complex information can’t be covered in a 15-minute standup. While this can be a fine line given the importance of communication, try to focus meeting time on group interactions such as discussions, brainstorming, and collaborating.
And when a meeting is the ideal way to communicate with your team, record the event or share detailed notes. That way, anyone who isn’t able to participate will still have access to the information.
6. Use the right communication tools
Buffer’s State of Remote Work surveys in 2021 and 2022 found that collaboration and communication posed some of the biggest challenges for teams that went remote during the pandemic. More than half of respondents (52%) said they’ve felt less connected to their colleagues since the shift to remote work—even among those who find themselves in more meetings than before.
There are two parts to the communication equation. First, your team needs the right tools. Tools aren’t the only way to unlock information sharing at a distance, but functionality does matter.
Second, your team needs to decide how best to use those tools to meet their needs. Both synchronous and asynchronous communication are important, and some of the most popular chat and communication services facilitate both. This lets team members choose the appropriate channel they need in the moment.
7. Focus on outcomes
Before the pandemic, companies often equated performance at work with time spent in the office. Even then, it was a questionable way to measure a professional’s value. With a remote workforce, it’s an approach that’s doomed to fail.
The challenge here isn’t a lack of tools or processes, but the erosion of trust.
Left to work independently during the pandemic, most people felt their productivity stayed the same or increased. This should have helped alleviate concerns that people can’t effectively work from home—and in some organizations, it did.
In others, however, work-from-home exposed the flaws of relying on traditional cues. When workers left the office, they lost the daily interactions that build rapport with colleagues as well as the environmental cues that signal how busy people are. Without a more objective way to measure contributions, many managers and colleagues were left with little more than doubts.
The most productive response isn’t to double down on monitoring and tracking. Instead, focus on outcomes.
“If you micromanage remote talent you actually kill their productivity instead of driving it,” said Tim Sanders, Upwork's VP of Customer Insights. Instead of focusing on daily activities, he said experts advise managers to:
- Set clear expectations
- Ensure a reasonable workload
- Check periodically the team has the resources they need
This means the most important thing you can do as the leader of a remote workforce is to ensure project requirements and expectations are both crystal clear. “Have [your team] report to you what they’re prioritizing in the coming week and then you coach their decision making, if required, and the rest takes care of itself,” Sanders said.
8. Find the best candidates for your remote team
Little of the hiring process needs to change when you engage remote talent, whether you look for employees in a different zip code or search for independent professionals from around the world.
Start with a clear and concise description of the role, its responsibilities and/or deliverables, and an understanding of the skills needed to do the work.
Then, thoroughly vet the professionals you consider, which may include a video interview, a small paid project, or a review of references and/or previous client feedback.
One common mistake when hiring remote talent is to overlook the importance of setting and listening to expectations. You and the professional will both have expectations about timelines, communication, information sharing, and scheduling. Be upfront about your needs and expectations, and encourage open communication from day one.
9. Tie individual objectives to the company’s quarterly and yearly goals
While aligning your team’s experience with the company’s values helps articulate a sense of purpose, linking individual objectives to the company’s overarching goals gives context to everyday activities. Knowing the “why” behind their work helps your team stay engaged as they work toward a common vision.
“Employees want to see how their work contributes to larger corporate objectives,” wrote Amy Gallo, an expert in workplace dynamics. “Setting the right targets makes this connection explicit for them, and for you, as their manager.”
Making this connection helps keep employees motivated, Gallo noted, but it also supports better decision making: If tradeoffs are required in the course of their work, knowing the big picture can help individual workers understand the broader impact.
10. Agree on roles and responsibilities
When roles and responsibilities are well defined, particularly for a distributed team, you minimize the chance that a project will be derailed by assumptions or miscommunications.
Two popular frameworks help establish “who’s who” on any venture: DACI and RACI.
DACI—which stands for driver, approver, contributors, and informed—designates the decision makers on a particular initiative:
- The driver is the lead, responsible for day-to-day decisions that move the project forward.
- The approver is a higher-level authority who signs off on overall project-related decisions.
- Contributors are experts who inject expertise into the project’s direction and help inform decisions.
- Informed includes people who are not directly involved but need to be kept in the loop.
In contrast, the RACI model—an acronym for responsible, accountable, consulted, and informed—provides a top-level view of who does what:
- The responsible person makes sure the work gets done, whether they do it themselves or lead the people and resources involved.
- The person who’s accountable ensures, at a higher level, that objectives are met and decisions can be explained.
- The roles of consulted and informed in the RACI framework are similar to DACI in that they’re connected to the project but may not be directly involved.
These frameworks aren’t meant to be hierarchical or siloed—the people involved may not be on the same team and could include independent professionals engaged for their expertise. Nor do the frameworks get into the specifics of task delegation. For that deeper visibility, your team will need a platform that enables progress tracking.
11. Develop centralized team dashboards
Much of the work an individual does is all but invisible—they may see the final results but incremental progress is hard to follow. That sense of working behind the scenes is amplified for a remote workforce. Centralized team dashboards can help bring those contributions to the surface.
A business dashboard is a graphical user interface (GUI) that shines a spotlight on critical metrics and key performance indicators (KPIs) through one visual report. When these dashboards are available across a team, it enables everyone to see—at a glance and in real time—how the team is moving toward its goals.
This kind of transparency can leave people feeling exposed, so consider discussing the dashboard’s role in accountability, learning, and improvement. For example, metrics can provide valuable insights into:
- The team’s capacity and where more resources may be needed
- Whether the team’s priorities need to be adjusted
- Unidentified skill and/or training gaps
And, while a dashboard can highlight where improvements can be made, it can also draw attention to a team’s unique strengths. This is a great opportunity to find out what capabilities can be shared across the company. Find a data visualization specialist to create custom dashboards for your remote workforce.
12. Foster a culture of team accountability
Many of the best practices in building a successful and effective remote workforce—connecting people to the company’s aspirations, defining roles and responsibilities, and supporting transparency—feed into another important aspect of remote work: creating a culture of accountability.
When writing their book “Competing in the New World of Work,” co-authors Keith Ferrazzi and Kian Gohar drew on their years of experience coaching executive teams. They also pored through the global research exploring the strongest organizational responses to the COVID-19 pandemic.
One trait they observed across high-performance teams was something they call Co-Elevation, which taps into the idea that no one succeeds unless everyone succeeds. “Interdependent members share accountability for each other’s results, pick each other up when one of them needs help, and share responsibility for crossing the finish line together,” they wrote.
Fostering a culture of accountability that lifts workers up, rather than casting blame, can be complicated. That’s because people typically dread accountability at work. “When consequences are levied, they often feel shaming and harsh, despite corporate rhetoric about learning from failures,” said Ron Carucci, an author and expert on transformational change.
To counteract that reputation, he emphasizes a process that treats the work being done with respect, prioritizes fairness for everyone on the team—including its leaders—and puts the focus on growing from each other’s mistakes.
13. Invest in developing team skill sets
Encouraging your remote workforce to actively develop their skills puts each individual in control of their own career. Whether they focus on hard or soft skills, continued education expands opportunities, increases productivity, and provides new tools to improve both work and quality of life.
Training is also an important way for your company to bridge gaps in necessary skills. “Fast-paced technological advances are making it difficult for employees, employers, and educators alike to identify the skills that job seekers need,” wrote Elizabeth Mann Levesque, a former fellow at the Brookings Brown Center.
By embracing that uncertainty, you set your organization up for future success. In one pre-pandemic study, 94% of employees said they’d stay with a company if it invested in their learning and development—a sentiment felt most strongly by Gen Z and Millennials.
14. Implement team-building activities
With a remote workforce, interactions typically need to be planned ahead of time, which changes the nature of bringing a team together. In the past, most teams would see each other regularly and socialize as part of their daily routine. Team-building activities were a fun diversion. For a distributed team, however, these activities may be a rare occasion for colleagues to connect and not talk about work.
“Team building matters more than it did before COVID-19 because all those micro-interactions that we counted on in the office are gone,” Ian Fraser, co-founder of team-building virtual events provider The Go Game, told human resources publication SHRM.
And planning meaningful events has only become more complicated. With so many video calls every day, HR professionals find it can be tough to generate excitement around a social event.
But planning these events is as important as ever. They don’t just help people connect with their peers, they also help improve communication, collaboration, trust, and feedback—especially outside of formal channels. We collaborate better with friends because we feel a greater degree of commitment and cooperation.
15. Don't forget meeting in person
As virtual get-togethers became a tougher sell, meeting colleagues in person became a novelty—but in-person meetings are about to make a comeback.
Long-time remote work experts say being distributed increases the value of seeing each other face to face. GitLab, a company that went fully remote in 2014, has more than 1,500 team members located around the world. In their remote work handbook, they explain that any event should play to its strengths.
“It's hard for technology to capture the non-verbals and cameraderie [sic] that inevitably happens in an in-person meeting, which sometimes falls flat online,” the GitHub team observed. “While colocated companies may struggle to garner deep support from team members who must plan, execute, and attend a meetup, all-remote team members tend to view meetups as special opportunities to do something they aren't able to do on a daily basis: interact with colleagues in the same physical space.”
16. Encourage your team to use time tracking
If remote work is focused on outcomes rather than time spent in an office, and much of the team’s success depends on trust, what’s the point of encouraging people to track their time?
First, independent workers often bill and/or report on an hourly basis, so recording how they spend their time may already be part of their routine. But even for salaried employees, time tracking can be a valuable tool: It helps build awareness of how they spend their time and what they might be able to do better.
Tracking time isn’t about proving how workers spend their time—if you focus on that, you will erode trust across the team. Instead, it’s an activity that brings attention to the question of balance.
Laura Vanderkam, who’s made a career of studying how people spend their time, has found that when we aren’t aware of how we spend our time we spend more time doing things that may be enjoyable but otherwise do little to improve our lives.
“We try to squeeze [high-impact activities] around the edges of things that are easy, or that seem inevitable merely because we always do them or because we think others expect us to,” she explained in her book “168 Hours.” “Consequently, we feel overworked and underrested.”
It’s a practice tennis champion and entrepreneur Serena Williams uses to be accountable to her priorities. She told Fast Company that tracking her time helps her stay at the top of her game in the three areas that matter most: her family, her business, and tennis. She then uses the data to adjust her schedule as needed.
Learning to manage their time can benefit your team in a number of ways, helping them to:
- More accurately plan around due dates and deliverables
- Plan their days better, so they can work more efficiently
- Reduce stress—for themselves and their peers—by sticking to set timelines
- Improve quality of work by minimizing rush
- Protect boundaries between work and other commitments by avoiding spillover
17. Always use feedback tools
Good communication and using the right tools are two keys to a successful and effective remote team. However, communication strategies often focus on dissemination, or one-to-many information sharing. It doesn’t always track what comes back.
Feedback is the impact of what you say and do—and it’s important that it flows in all directions on your team. Feedback can help keep you informed about the issues affecting your team so you can be proactive and retain workers for the longer term. And it’s particularly important for a distributed team, which doesn’t have the informal feedback loops, like watercooler conversations, that co-located teams have access to.
You can collect feedback in a number of ways, such as:
- In-depth surveys at regular intervals (i.e., quarterly or annual)
- Quick “pulse” surveys at regular intervals (i.e., weekly or monthly)
- In-person interviews
- A “suggestion box” that’s always available
With the right tools, you can get the information you need in a way that’s easy to use, timely, and delivered so that it will help you make better-informed decisions.
What makes a successful remote team?
Measuring success is complex because your company’s values and aspirations are unique. However, we can look broadly at teams that consistently deliver at a high level.
In an analysis of team dynamics during COVID-19, psychologist Ron Friedman identified one trait that set high-performance teams apart: The strength of their relationships.
“Our study’s findings suggest that creating a high-performing workplace takes more than simply hiring the right people and arming them with the right tools to do their work,” Friedman said. “It requires creating opportunities for genuine, authentic relationships to develop.”
Friedman’s researchers identified five things that these teams do differently—and each of them helps amplify connections. High-performance teams:
- Are much more likely to pick up the phone to speak with each other
- Take meetings seriously by relying on an agenda, asking attendees to do prework when appropriate, and starting each meeting with a quick status check
- Bond over non-work-related interests, making an effort to genuinely connect with each other
- Frequently recognize each other’s work and show appreciation for individual contributions
- Are more comfortable being themselves at work, expressing both positive and negative emotions
Friedman notes that these activities aren’t expensive or time-consuming. Nor do they necessarily need to take place in person.
Start building your remote workforce
When you build a remote workforce with intent, you can create a culture that encourages and rewards the kind of clarity, communication, transparency, and trust that will provide the support the team needs in order to be effective and succeed.
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