Hiring remote workers can help you build your business quickly and give you access to the best talent anywhere in the world. Here are some strategies for managing them effectively.
The tide is turning against the cubicle. And even though many startups pride themselves on showing off swank offices with open-floor plans, beanbag chairs, and free chef-made meals, you can do without them, too.
Instead, why not just skip out on the downtown commute and work from the comfort of your own home, your local coffee shop, or wherever else you feel inspired?
This has been our method of operation ever since we launched our agency, and we’re not alone. 37signals founders Jason Fried and David Henemeier Hansson recently wrote about the many benefits of switching to a remote work environment in their new book, Remote, and tech companies including Buffer, Groove, and Automattic all work remotely as well. Obviously, you can’t build a virtual manufacturing plant, but for knowledge-based workers including writers, editors, marketers, programmers, and designers, there’s no downside to going virtual, as long as you plan it right.
We’ve been working remotely since 2007, and in the last two years, have built up our content marketing agency with the help of remote contractors. Our new employee, while local to our area, will also work remotely most of the time. Here’s what we’ve learned in the process of building and managing a remote team. While our experience is specific to building a content marketing agency, our experience is relevant to nearly any type of remote work.
With any company, it’s essential to hire employees or choose consultants wisely to make sure they’ll be able to rise to the occasion, particularly when supervision is limited or non-existent. When bringing someone new on board or hiring a virtual team, consider asking these questions:
What’s your experience with remote work?
It’s important to choose people who have experience working on their own, outside of the typical heavily-managed office environment. If someone’s used to being a 9-to-5 clockwatcher, they may not do well in a results-driven environment. For this reason, we only choose freelancer writers who have at least a year of full-time freelance experience. Not everyone is suited to remote work, so if you select someone who’s never done it before, he or she might easily cave in to distractions or find the experience isolating.
Do you have a suitable home office setup?
If you’re hiring an employee to work from home, it’s also important to make sure that she has a distraction-free environment where she’ll be able to focus on the tasks at hand. Especially if she’ll need to talk on the phone regularly, it needs to be free from outside noise, and most crucially, she’ll need access to high-speed internet service to stay connected to you and the rest of the team. In our hiring process, we asked each applicant to confirm that they had a home office space that they could use; in the event that they didn’t, we were willing to rent a co-working space on his or her behalf for daily use. If your employee doesn’t have a suitable home space, consider doing the same.
Have you performed similar work in the past?
A remote environment can be a great fit for an experienced pro, but for an entry-level employee who may need much more training in what’s being asked of him or her, it may not be as ideal. If someone is less experienced, consider trialing him or her on a small project before making a full-time hire or jumping into a larger engagement.
With written work, it’s the end result that’s important, not how or when it’s produced. We make it clear what we expect as the end result and include a deadline when assigning work, but we leave the specifics of producing the work up to our team. We anticipate a little more interaction in the work process with a full-time employee as compared to our freelance writers, but in general, when you can define your expectations for work to be produced, there’s no need for constant management or oversight.
We’re often working on projects for six to 10 clients at any given time, and so our projects have a lot of moving parts. As we’ve grown, using email is no longer sufficient to keep tabs on what’s due and when, so we’ve moved to a cloud-based project management system called Teamwork. We can assign tasks such as writing assignments, and the system integrates with Google Docs, so we can easily track and deliver all work right through the system. Once articles are assigned and completed, they’re edited internally by our team, then distributed to our clients for feedback and revisions. The process has become more complex as we’ve grown, but using a system for tracking tasks and milestones helps us keep tabs on what’s happening.
When managing a remote employee or working with contractors, it’s not always easy to know whether someone has understood your request, which may result in work that doesn’t meet your needs. In either case, make sure that the people you’re working with know that they can always check in with you for clarification or to answer any questions. We work remotely with our clients, as well as our team, and we communicate with them regularly to find out if they have upcoming needs or organizational changes that might influence the work they expect from us. We use tools like Skype, Google Hangouts, and GoToMeeting to stay connected, as well as email and phone calls. Depending how closely you’re working with someone—whether you’re actively collaborating on a project together, or merely providing a deliverable—you may have different needs for communication, so choose the tool(s) that work best for your circumstances.
Many business owners and executives fear losing control of a work situation when it’s out of their direct line of sight. But today, there are countless tools for managing workflow and communicating remotely. That also means that you don’t necessarily need to stick with the traditional path: Hire a remote employee if it makes sense for your business operations, but it could also be beneficial to explore the possibilities of working with a specialized agency that can level up quickly and scale to meet your needs.
When you’re not limited to selecting someone who’s going to commute to your office each day, you have the chance to find the most talented people anywhere in the world to help you—make the most of it.
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Kathryn Hawkins is principal and chief content strategist of Eucalypt Media. She has worked as a freelance journalist for media publications and managed inbound marketing and content strategy for corporate and nonprofit clients for more than a decade.
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