Alternative work arrangements, like telecommuting, flextime and compressed workweeks, used to be the perks you’d find only at a relatively small number of forward-thinking companies. But today, many creative agencies and in-house departments are catering to telecommuters. Savvy employers know they must be accommodating if they want to attract and retain top talent, as many workers are seeking more flexible and balanced work schedules.
In fact, nearly seven in 10 creative professionals said they would prefer to work from home or another noncompany site more frequently than they currently do, according to The Creative Group’s Creative Workplace survey.
But telecommuting is a perk you need to implement thoughtfully. Leading a creative team that may include a mix of on-site employees, telecommuters, fully remote workers, freelancers and consultants is a tall order. How do you create a cohesive team when everyone is scattered across town — or in different countries? How do you build camaraderie, foster a positive workplace culture, and provide leadership and support from afar?
It’s not easy. Fortunately, the following five strategies can help you manage a dispersed team. Several of the recommendations include insights from two experts who know how to make the most of telecommuting arrangements: Ashleigh Axios, design exponent at Automattic, an all-remote company with more than 700 people working across the world, and Deepa Subramaniam, co-founder of Wherewithall, an advising company dedicated to helping organizations operate effectively and grow.
1. Make communication a top priority
If your team members have different schedules and work at various locations, you need to make sure pertinent information is easily — and frequently — communicated. Otherwise, you risk having a disjointed and unproductive team.
“Creative leaders need to take time to communicate expectations, set up processes and tools for documenting and sharing information, and make sure no remote or internal worker feels isolated or siloed,” Subramaniam says. “Most important, managers need to provide context for every project.”
That context, according to Subramaniam, includes the project’s history and who on the team is responsible for what. She says contextual information should be documented in a central location, like a Google Doc or a wiki, that all team members can access. Other basic information, such as project timelines and team members’ work schedules, should also be current and available. A simple online calendar app, for example, can help ensure that everyone on your team, from the telecommuter to the on-site employee to the freelancer, can easily share and view the latest schedule details in one place.
Axios adds that project teams at Automattic use apps like Slack to share information about their schedules and work progress. “Reading each other’s status updates asynchronously is how we conduct our version of the daily standup meeting,” she says.
No matter the technology you use, everyone needs to be on the same page about how the tools work and why they’re being used. And be open to emerging communication options. “Don’t be afraid to try out tools and then retire them,” Subramaniam says. “Source ideas from all team members — ask them what they use to stay productive and connected.”
2. Keep in daily contact, but don’t micromanage
When creating a calendar for your team, set times for when everyone will meet (whether in person or virtually), and when you will check in with team members individually. Also, let your staff know how and when they can reach you throughout the workday. After all, team members who are off-site won’t be able to swing by your office to ask questions or get feedback. (Plus, you might not be in your office that often if you’re a regular telecommuter.)
The bottom line: Never let a telecommuter or remote worker feel like they’re on an island. Aside from the department and individual meetings you schedule, try to connect with every team member at least once a day via instant message or email. Even better, pick up the phone for a quick call. Speaking with someone to discuss the details of a project or convey an important message is often more effective — and efficient — than typing out the words. It’s also a way to build personal rapport with colleagues.
However, be careful not to micromanage. Telecommuters need to feel confident that their manager believes they will work as hard as they would in a regular office, logging similar hours, hitting deadlines and maintaining productivity. If you’re unnecessarily checking in several times a day with remote workers just to “see how things are going,” those employees may feel like you don’t trust them.
3. Make time for face time
It’s important to bring your entire team together on occasion. If your group is widely distributed, schedule a full team event at least annually. That’s what Automattic does. “Twice a year, the whole company gets together for a weeklong ‘grand meetup,’” Axios says.
However, those big companywide gatherings aren’t the only time Automattic employees convene. For example, Axios says that when she’s kicking off a new project, she likes to get her colleagues together in the same physical space so they can “bond and get to know each other.”
That approach is especially valuable for team members who rarely see each other in person or do not typically collaborate on projects. “It helps us all get a good sense of each other’s tone and communication styles and sense of humor, so we understand each other better when we are communicating by email and text,” Axios says.
For everyday face time with your team, consider videoconferencing. Seeing your workers — even if it’s virtually — helps you, and them, feel less disconnected. It also helps to avoid miscommunication when giving feedback, because your workers can read your facial expressions and body language. So, before you dial the phone or write an email, ask yourself if sending a telecommuter or remote worker a video chat invitation is the better option.
Axios says project teams at Automattic frequently use tools like the Zoom video platform. “I like Zoom because you can see everyone’s face in their own ‘square.’ Even if people are joining the meeting from the same location, it looks like they’re dialing in individually. It makes us all equal,” she says.
4. Build morale to strengthen the team
Bringing your whole team together into one physical place — or at least into one big videoconference — on a regular basis can help to build camaraderie and team spirit. But there’s another way to lift morale and strengthen your team that doesn’t necessarily require setting up an in-person or video meeting: Taking the time to recognize your employees for their hard work.
Doing that from a distance can require a bit of creativity. A suggestion: If your team is tackling a big project and juggling multiple deadlines, consider sending them each a $10 gift card and encouraging them to take a coffee or sandwich break as a thank-you. Little gestures like that can go a long way toward making a difference in any employee’s day, whether they are a telecommuter or a freelancer.
5. Emphasize work-life balance
Providing flexible work options, like a telecommuter arrangement, is not only a great perk for your employees but also a way to establish a culture of work-life balance at your company. Being able to work from home or at a coworking location, avoid a long commute, or reside in an area with a better cost of living are all benefits that can give your creative team members greater control over their lives. That, in turn, can increase their job satisfaction and loyalty.
However, it’s easy for dedicated creative professionals to become workaholics when they decide to embrace the telecommuter lifestyle. So, encourage remote employees to practice good time management. Set your own start and stop times, and have telecommuters do the same. And make sure you respect their schedules. Refrain from contacting your workers outside of office hours, when possible. And don’t expect a response while they’re offline.
Master these strategies now to ensure future success
Telecommuting will only continue growing in popularity. As a manager, it’s essential to help every on-site employee, telecommuter, remote worker, freelancer and consultant on your team feel connected to each other, their work and the organization as a whole. Your commitment to fostering a “one team” spirit can increase morale and productivity. It also helps you prepare to be an effective leader of tomorrow. As Subramaniam says, “Freelancing and distributed teams are the future.”