Insights to Managing an International Remote Workforce

Remote work is not just a trend but a revolution in the way business is being conducted around the world. And the move toward more people working remotely has only accelerated as a result of the coronavirus. As Laurel Farrer, Forbes contributor and CEO of Distribute Consulting detailed in a study of independent researchers, remote work is here to stay. Among the reasons why remote work is now permanent include

  • Greater Productivity — Teleworkers are on average 35-40% more productive than their counterparts working in offices.
  • Increased Performance — With stronger autonomy via location independence, remote workers produce results with 40% fewer quality defects.
  • Stronger Retention — 54% of employees say they would change jobs for one that offered more flexibility. A 12% turnover reductions have been achieved when remote work agreement has been offered
  • Heightened Engagement — Higher productivity and performance combine to create stronger engagement, or in other words, 41% lower absenteeism.
  • Increased Profitability — Organizations save an average of $11,000 per year per part-time telecommuter, resulting in 21% greater profitability.

For those companies that weren’t born remote — like GitLab — the shift to remote work involving all levels of an organization — is likely to create challenges. And where you have or are planning to hire remote staff overseas — the challenges are likely to be magnified. With these challenges in mind, here are some tips to help you make improvements to the key elements required for managing widely dispersed remote workers:

Communications – This is an obvious one regardless of where your remote employees are. To start with, you should communicate up front what is expected in a remote work format as well as the frequency, means and nature of regular communication. You may not want to replicate the office experience for remote workers, but having regular communication fosters connectivity and accountability, and also helps ward off isolation. While regular communication is a key to making sure your team is productive, achieving goals and feeling good, you want to find balance as one of the benefits of remote work. This involves the achievement of a certain amount of freedom and flexibility, which ultimately leads to higher productivity. Consider utilizing multimedia for communications, including video meetings for more formal meetings, chat sessions for spontaneous or follow up communications, and yes even email when you want a communication trail. Documenting as much as possible allows for communication to flow regardless of when it is communicated.

Time Zones Matter – Yes that’s an easy one, but easily neglected too. You may only be scheduling one evening call with a co-worker this week, but they may have many others, and suddenly their flexible work life balance dream has become a never-ending workweek nightmare. Look at calendars, know time differences, and adjust your schedule at times to meet your coworker / employee schedules.

Workspace & IT – Anywhere you have remote workers and they’re expected to work from home can bring challenges including limited working space and IT maintenance. For example, in China, where international internet traffic can be slow due to China’s firewall — a company may need to find an internet service provider that specializes in handling international traffic for their work at home employers. Some employees forced to work at home may be in unsecure locations, or literally in unsafe working conditions. Find out what their options are and work with them to find a comfortable, secure, and safe working environment. Make sure your employees have the key ingredients including optimal equipment for communication. If employees are expected to be on external video calls — provide advice and tools to make their settings appropriate and which also align with corporate guidelines.

Cultural Norms and Expectations – Besides the obvious cultural differences like language, or even holiday and work schedule norms, there may be less obvious cultural norms that impact remote work. In some cultures, remote work is a relatively new concept or one not widely in use. Employees may feel uncomfortable not being in an office — or better said — working from their home. In Japan, for example, face time at the office is often seen as crucial for employee success, and especially for older workers, the idea of remote work may be uncomfortable. Communicate the remote work expectations in the hiring process — or if there is a going to be a transition — provide as much time as possible so employees can make appropriate adjustments.

Compliance – One of the benefits of remote work is increased flexibility, though employers should be aware of compliance issues around working hours and days. Make sure you have an understanding of employment regulations, and ensure appropriate policies and rules are documented. Remote work does not mean you can work anywhere compliantly without some planning. Employees may be tempted to work outside their home country, taking remote work to the “next level”. Employers should be cautious and get advice before providing blanket permission to work and roam freely without understanding the implications for both the employee and the employer. Employers should also check their insurance policies such as whether workers compensation covers work from home employees.

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