How to Effectively Manage Remote Staff

When offered the option, many people will jump at the chance to work remotely, but working remotely brings many new challenges to both the employee and the employer.

Law firms need to identify which employees have the discipline and temperament to work independently and supervisors have to consider different techniques to effectively manage remote staff. While technology has made it easier than ever before to work from locations outside the office, there are important security, consistency, and confidentiality concerns to take into account.

Before allowing staff to work remotely, it's critical to identify the best candidates, provide the right training, and tailor your technology to provide effective working conditions and oversight capabilities for those employees we don't physically see every day. With proper consideration, remote work programs can be a winning solution for the firm, the employees and clients alike.

Tackling Challenges Head-On

A properly constituted remote worker program can result in more satisfied, dedicated employees, allow the firm to more easily fill coverage gaps across time zones, provide facilities for faster response rates to client issues, and ease the burden of providing overtime and holiday coverage. These advantages, however, do come with obstacles that the firm must be properly prepared for to ensure success.

Supervision is typically the biggest challenge with remote staff, even in today's technology world. When an employee across the room or down the hall is having a bad day or needs more support, a good supervisor can easily notice and respond. When employees work from home, supervisors lack those visual cues and may not realize there is a problem until it has escalated. The supervisor who oversees remote staff must make it a priority to connect with his or her staff members every day.

Staying in regular communication can be an issue in other ways as well. In most offices, staff members casually share knowledge through direct and indirect means throughout the day. Staying abreast of macro concerns, maintaining a consistent response to customers, and maintaining a cohesive culture are all much more difficult with a distributed workforce that doesn't always communicate regularly.

Remote work is not only a challenge for supervisors; the remote employee also faces substantial challenges. Remote employees may require additional support resources to support their off-site technology and won't have upstream IT support down the hall whenever an issue arises. If not provided with adequate supervision, they won't have someone closely tracking their progress and keeping them focused on the day-to-day execution of their responsibilities. They won't have access to the anecdotal information they'd otherwise overhear from colleagues in the course of the day that helps identify global issues, even when their colleagues fully embrace new technology tools. Not every employee is cut out for working from home.

Some employees truly thrive on social interaction and close collaboration, and limited interactivity may make it harder for them to perform. Others may lack the right mix of discipline, maturity and skill set to pull it off. It's important that your remote employee policies clearly communicate expectations and requirements to be eligible for this benefit.

While there may be some savings with a remote workforce, don't plan for huge budget cuts. Savings are often negligible after factoring in technology costs, travel expenses, and new overhead for successful management.

Making Remote Staffing Work

The first step for law firms that have never had remote staff, or have experienced limited success with these programs, is to identify employees who are both interested and capable of successfully working remotely. With the right candidate, it can be a seamless fit that expands the scope of your workforce. But with the wrong person, you'll find yourself expending tons of time and energy managing the employee and his efforts.

It's often best to start with known commodities, proven performers that consistently demonstrate their accountability, knowledge and maturity. It's also easier when staff members have existing relationships with supervisors and colleagues and familiarity with the firm's policies and expectations. Bringing in new talent remotely must be managed very carefully to ensure a successful fit with existing staff and provide proper adaptation of the firm's standards, practices and policies.

Consider starting your remote workforce program gradually by offering it as a perk for good employee performance, off-shift work or holiday coverage. Identify specific positions that can benefit from remote staffing and target those shifts and positions that are more difficult to fill. A firm may have a shift that is difficult for someone on the East Coast to fill, but it may be much easier for someone on the West Coast to provide that same coverage with less disruption to lifestyle choices.

Training: The Key to Successfully Managing Remote Staff

Perhaps most importantly, don't overlook training! Your staff needs extensive training, not just in how to use the necessary hardware and software, but policies, standards and practices must all be clearly and routinely communicated to be followed faithfully. Don't overlook the value of time and efficacy in management tactics. Since the supervisory influence will be at least half a step removed, everyone needs to be critically aware of his or her roles, responsibilities and commitments.

Since it's easy to take things for granted or overlook issues with a remote workforce, supervisors must schedule regular meetings with remote workers and develop clear lines of communication. Bringing remote employees into the office for regular meetings and social events allows them to truly recognize and appreciate that they are part of the firm and its culture. While these types of activities may not be cheap, they pay dividends in improved performance and employee satisfaction.

The Bottom Line

Recognize that while technology can help to keep staff, colleagues and supervisors in the loop, it won't solve fundamental gaps in communication and supervision. When setting up remote offices or work from home, providing a consistent technology platform will dramatically reduce costs and allow for quick deployments of future sites. A single remote worker platform will allow the firm to draw more meaningful data and metrics, building confidence in the process while still allowing employees the latitude to create their own work environment. Redundancies are another important consideration. Residential Internet and energy services will not be as reliable as those that support your corporate offices, and providers will be less responsive to an outage that involves a home office than they will be for a large commercial client. Make sure your remote workforce has adequate alternative solutions for connecting to critical systems, and make sure that you have adequate policies to allow for substitute employees to fill in during outage situations.

While firms will often find considerable advantages in employing a remote workforce, it's critical to carefully consider their needs, staff and objectives before undertaking a remote workforce program. With proper planning, firms can capitalize on technology, geographical distribution and employee lifestyle differences to extend their reach and offer extended services to their customers.