Virtual offices and remotely located staff are becoming the norm for businesses in South Africa. Keeping the team dynamic, focus and brand values for a remote team, however, can be a challenge.
As a business owner in South Africa for over 18 years, I know what it’s like to manage a large team in different locations. I am often out of the country on business, and my team is spread across South Africa and is steadily growing. I’ve advocated working remotely for years, with the simple understanding that my team can work anytime, and from any place, as long as they get the work done and the hours in.
The challenge for me is to find the balance between monitoring their productivity, focusing on running and growing my business, all while keeping a sense of identity, focus and belonging in a segmented team.
With many cloud-based businesses popping up all over South Africa, and home-based and virtual offices becoming more the norm, you’ll find that managing your team remotely presents its own set of benefits and new challenges.
Here are a few ideas that have worked for us in getting the most out of our off-site team:
1. Start right
The first place to start is with recruitment. Whether your employees work from home, answer phones, or at a central office, they form part of the brand, part of the business that you have poured your heart, soul and bank balance into, and part of the customer experience. Take time and spend money here to ensure you hire the right fit and you’ll have more productive hours out of your team, and fewer staff issues.
Related: Why cutting staff might just cost you more
A) Hire Activators
Activators, or doers, will get the job done, whether they are in Bloemfontein or Bulawayo. You barely have to drop a hint of what you want done, and they will find a way to make it happen. You do still need to give direction and input, but our office joke is that an activator is like a wind-up car; you simply wind up the wheels, point an activator in the right direction, and let them go! They’ll run with it, full steam ahead, until it’s done. They need very little management, and more often than not produce creative, reliable and consistent work of a high standard.
B) Hire trustworthy people
A remote team stops working if you feel you can't trust the person on the other end of the line. If you continually find yourself wondering what someone is doing, then you are wasting your already over-taxed mental reserves on worry, instead of on reflecting on ways to grow the business. Trust is crucial, so hire someone who shows they can be trusted, is reliable and accountable, and has a strong sense of responsibility, and then let go and trust them.
C) Hire people who communicate well
When you’re in a central office space, most of the information is shared verbally, but in a remote setting, most communication is written, so hire someone who can communicate well in written format. The last thing you want are disgruntled team members, due to someone who offends them constantly, and probably unknowingly so, with their abrupt and careless written comms.
2. Foster an accountability culture
This is a big one for us: How do you know if people are doing work when the big boss isn’t hovering over their shoulders? An easy way that we monitor our team is through BOS’s dashboard, time tracker and job tracker.
It is open for the whole team to see, so that everyone knows the progress of any job, and also how productive everyone is. It makes it easier to stay in the loop on projects and also keeps everyone accountable to everyone else to do their part.
3. Reward excellence
Encourage a culture of excellence by recognising, applauding and rewarding employees when things are done well. This will have to be more deliberate than in a normal office situation, so find creative ways of doing this.
Things like moving gifs on your team skype chats, or videos or even gift vouchers or company branded gear are some things we use. Reward and recognition go a long way in a rather isolated team set up. Activators thrive on positive feedback and sometimes even a verbal commendation will make the person feel appreciated, so be mindful of your praise and affirmation.
Related: How to manage employees when they're on the road
4. Automate, automate, automate
The core of value of my business is relationships, but the secondary core is automation. Aside from the obvious fact that our business software does this for us, here’s why we automate things: Firstly, it allows us to keep the team size small, since we don't need additional people to perform repetitious, mundane admin tasks. Secondly, it lets teammates focus on high impact, revenue-generating work nearly all of the time, rather than spending hours weighed down with admin or double entering data.
5. Set goals, stick to it, then measure it
We all need a purpose. We all need the proverbial reason to get out of bed in the morning. Personal goals, such as saving up to go overseas or buy a house or send your kids to university, drive us and help us remain disciplined. Work goals are exactly the same, except the team benefit might need to be made clearer by you, in order for the team or individual to buy in and engage.
Set SMART goals (specific, measurable, agreed upon, realistic, time-limited)
Follow this clever little acronym and you’re golden. Lay out clearly defined goals, that have a defined start and end time, and are plausibly achievable. Ensure you have systems and structures in place to measure how effectively this goal was achieved. The team’s motivation will improve as each goal post is reached.
Put procedures in place
Procedures give a team structure to operate in. It’s like creating the boundaries for a safe place to play and an efficient way to work. Map these procedures out in a document or more visual platform, like Visio, and share them with the team so that everyone knows the fastest and best way of performing a task. This can also filter into your KPI and regular assessment and incentive processes.
Buy the right software
For internal comms and meetings, we like Slack , Skype and Team Viewer. We try and keep our inboxes solely for client comms. For time tracking and project management we like Trello, Asana or BOS. BOS (Business Operating System) also has built-in functionality for estimating, stock and inventory, accounts, resource management and reports, so we get good use out of it. The right software will also show you if - and how well - your team is meeting its goals.
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6. Check-in everyday… yes, everyday
Set-up a calendar reminder for a daily check-in with your team and never cancel it. Use the check-in to see if they need your input, where they are stuck, if they are focusing on work that is not a priority, and how they are progressing with tasks.
It might be a phone call, an email or on whatever system you use for internal comms. This daily check-in removes the feeling of being isolated, and makes your team feel that they are part of something bigger; that they belong and that their work is important.