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Strategies for managing remote workers

Technology such as the internet, mobile devices and high-speed remote connections means that many jobs are now routinely performed off-site.

In order to remain an employer of choice among the most talented professionals, more companies have geared themselves up to provide this option.

According to a new Robert Half UK survey, 38% of HR directors plan to offer remote working options during the first half of 2012. More than four in 10 (44%) said that the prevalence of remote working has increased in the past three years, with 39% saying it has stayed the same.

In fact, the UK Government is planning to implement remote working for some of its staff this summer, as growing concerns over the capacity on the London public transport network for the upcoming Olympic Games comes into serious question. In a bid to make sure remote working goes without issue, three days of simulation training will take place to address any issues.

Implementing off-site programs can be a complicated process, but, if successful, there are many benefits for employers. These include:

Greater productivity: Time that employees spend commuting can now be spent working, improving the flexibility of hours provided by the workforce.

Reduction in property and other costs: Companies with a more flexible workforce can save money on office space and furnishings.

Enhanced recruitment and retention: Allowing employees more flexible schedules makes them less likely to seek other options. At the same time, it opens up a wider pool of talent, since some professionals wishing to make career changes, but not wanting to relocate, are attracted to companies with flexible working options.

Improved morale: Flexible working can alleviate stress caused by the inability to balance work and family while also eliminating (or reducing) the cost of traveling and childcare expenses. This can result in a tighter focus and higher work quality.

Reduced sick days: Workers who fall ill are still able to finish all or part of their tasks once they have recuperated but are not quite ready to return to work. The ability to work from home also prevents employees from returning too soon and passing on their illness to other people in the office.

Increased accommodation for the disabled: Some employees with mobility issues may feel more comfortable working from home.

Greener policies: Another advantage is the positive impact that remote working has on the environment. Reducing the number of commuters means fewer cars on the road and decreased fuel consumption, both of which are important to corporations concerned about their carbon footprint.

Despite its many benefits, flexible working presents new challenges for managers, especially those with no previous experience of supervising off-site workers. Many have concerns about their lack of face-to-face contact and daily interaction with key staff. However, there are some best practice processes that they can use to manage remote workers effectively. The first of these is to establish clear goals and objectives from the start, so that workers know what is expected of them and how they will be evaluated. A lack of clear guidelines governing how remote workers should work and the hours they should be available is one of the primary causes of conflict and misunderstanding further down the road.

What is vital is clear communication. Managers need to make sure they convey all information to remote workers, whether by phone or email. It's easier than many think to overlook these staff when communicating actions for the whole team. Providing staff feedback on a regular basis is important in any working relationship, but especially when team members are working remotely. Employees should be encouraged to offer feedback as well to their managers.

Managers need to do their best to help remote workers stay involved with office life. Despite the many benefits of working off-site, workers can feel isolated and concerned that they may be passed over for promotions or special projects. Lack of social interaction could also cause off-site workers to become less motivated. Not having co-workers to discuss ideas with could cause them to lose focus. Managers need to find ways to motivate all members of the team and help them reach their goals.

One way is to encourage remote staff to attend office events in person whenever possible, especially get-togethers to celebrate the success of team projects. Scheduling occasional team-building sessions that include remote workers gives them a chance to brainstorm and reignite their creativity. Managers also need to ensure remote workers receive recognition for their accomplishments - and that the rest of the team is aware of their contributions

Similarly, remote workers shouldn't be overlooked for projects with opportunities for growth. The success of flexible working depends largely on the willingness of managers to understand its benefits and how they should manage their remote staff. The first step is recognising that learning to manage virtual workers is simply part of a today's job description.

Estelle James (pictured), director, Robert Half UK