Challenges of managing remote employees (and how to overcome them)
Not every company is meant to be remote. Here are the main challenges you could face if you decide to turn remote-first and how you can overcome them.
Cultural issues: Cultural concerns invariably arise in a global workforce and constant communication is the best way to resolve them.
Diverse team: Taking time to understand the culture of your team members is respectful and can go a long way.
Diverse global workforce: Cultural inclusion and diversity works hand in hand.
Time differences: Teams that have to work closely together need to be no more than three timezones apart.
Communications: There is no issue more important than the quality and quantity of communications.
Not every business can operate as a remote-first company. If you have a defined product that has to be churned out (e.g., machine shops or restaurants) it may not be suitable to operate with a remote workforce. But if your company meets the qualifications of a remote workforce, and you can develop a style of management which fits, the you can reap many benefits.
One of the key understandings are the challenges of a global workforce. Before becoming a remote first company, it is vital that all members of the team understand the issues at hand and work towards the benefits of diversity and global operations.
What are the cultural issues in remote work?
Cultural concerns invariably arise in a global workforce. People from different nations have different values and sometimes, very different ideas about the nature of work. Constant communication is the best way to resolve them, but it has to be effective and above all else respectful.
This may be obvious enough across nations, but even within one country, cultural divisions could arise. For instance, that could mean a split between urban and rural areas, where people have very different lifestyles and traditions. A study by the Socio-Economic Research Group (SERG) in the UK found that these outlooks are not as important as their perception and the potential mistrust they create. This, by itself, can be a barrier to forming an effective team.
How does a diverse team function best?
No matter what the cultural issues are, there are key steps to overcome them. Everyone is going to have to communicate via one common language, which is usually English in today’s global workforce. However, learning a few key phrases and taking the time to understand the culture of your team members is respectful and can go a long way.
A 2015 study of successful global companies by Deloitte found that they had eight things in common, things which were subsequently declared Eight Powerful Truths (about diversity and inclusion):
- Diversity of Thinking is the New Frontier – successful companies learn to make good use of different perspectives and ways of looking at problems.
- Diversity Without Inclusion is Not Enough – everyone has to understand that their culture contributes to the overall corporate culture.
- Inclusive Leaders Cast a Long Shadow – leadership makes a critical difference in how diversity becomes either an asset or a liability.
- Middle Managers Matter – if your company is big enough, those who immediately supervise locally have to have inclusive leadership abilities.
- Rewire the System to Rewire Behaviors – inclusion and collaboration have to be a part of the incentive system in order to reinforce it.
- Tangible Goals Make Ambitions Real – a focus on specific goals keeps everyone’s eyes on the prize, minimizing the potential distraction of cultural conflicts.
- Match the Inside and the Outside – corporate transparency, and a focus on global customers makes diversity even more valuable.
- Perform a Cultural Reset, not a Punchlist – diversity has to be a key part of corporate culture.
What about the diverse global workforce itself?
In addition to corporate culture, structure, and management, who you hire makes a big difference. Research by Sujin Jang published in the Harvard Business Review found that successful diverse teams had several key characteristics. One important role was that of a “cultural broker” on each team that works closely together.
"Who are these cultural brokers? They’re team members who have relatively more multicultural experience than others and who act as a bridge between their monocultural teammates. These brokers come in two profiles. First, they can have multicultural experiences that map directly onto the cultures they are bridging between. For example, in a team with mostly Indian and American team members, a cultural broker could be someone with experience in both Indian and American cultures. I call such individuals cultural insiders. The second type of cultural broker is someone with experience in two or more cultures not represented in the team — say, Australian and Korean."
In all cases, cultural inclusion and diversity is strongest when they work well together. But it takes specific effort and care to make sure they're in place. These issues hold true in all global companies, but they are especially true for remote work in a diverse team.
How do we bridge time differences?
Generally speaking, teams that have to work closely together need to be no more than three timezones apart. This means that five hours of the day, at a minimum, are times when they overlap for instant communications.
Across an entire global workforce, however, there may be many more timezones. If that is the case, you can adopt a corporate central time, ideally Coordinated Universal Time (UTC) or Greenwich Mean Time. There are also important rules of etiquette that make it much easier for those times when a truly global meeting has to occur.
For example, any meeting that includes the Far East, Europe, and the United States is going to have to have one person who is either up very late or very early. These need to be very rare, and highly respectful of their usual work hours.
How important is communication for remote work?
There is no issue more important than the quality and quantity of communication. This should be an absolute core value built into the very structure of a remote-first company in order to be successful.
This cannot be stressed enough. There are many aspects of this which need to be consistently improved and practiced (they are discussed in detail in the other articles).
How are these challenges conquered for a successful remote-first company?
It is important to remember that a remote workforce is not the same as an in-office workforce in many different ways. The first step is to acknowledge this and treat it with great care from inception to daily operation.
Only then can the many benefits of a global workforce be realized.