7 steps for communicating and collaborating with remote small business employees

At Reavis Rehab and Wellness Center in Round Rock, Texas, the billing department is handled by billing manager Marlene Koster and Paula Maidlow, billing assistant. Throughout most of the day, both are on the phone with insurance providers to ensure patient costs are covered. They also are on the phone a lot with each other. That’s because Koster works remotely out of her home office and Maidlow works on site.

While such an arrangement might have been the exception 10 or more years ago, remote working has steadily increased. Statistics from the American Community Survey (ongoing statistical survey by the US Census Bureau) indicate that remote working or telecommuting has risen 79 percent between 2005 and 2013 and now makes up 2.6 percent of the American workforce.

Whether the reason for remote working is the desire for an improved work/life balance, the rising costs and frustration of commuting, or a need to relocate for personal reasons, employees are making it clear that they want choice when it comes to when and how they work. Faced with the challenge of attracting and retaining top talent, many small business owners are more than willing to comply. A survey conducted by Plantronics indicated that 64 percent of small businesses have found that offering flexible, mobile and remote work options is helping to hire and keep key talent.

Remote work options may help small business owners find the talent they need; but it can be challenging to keep communication going when a workforce is dispersed. There’s a risk that some employees may feel disengaged, which can even affect productivity. For that reason, you need to have a strategy for managing and communicating with remote team members to foster collaboration and preserve your company culture.

To ensure your remote working arrangement is successful, here are some steps to take:

Establish clear goals and expectations: Work with your team to establish goals for all departments. The goals should be quantifiable and not simply be to get the job done. You may want to set a series of milestones that need to be reached along the way with deadlines for each. Also clarify everyone’s role and responsibilities so that there is no uncertainly about who does what.

Set times when everyone needs to be available: Thanks to smartphones and tablets, anyone can be reachable at any time. However, you may want to establish certain times of the day when everyone, whether they are at home or at your headquarters, is expected to be available.

Provide a choice of communication tools: There’s no shortage of ways to communicate these days whether by phone, chat, email or web or video conferencing. Unified Communications (UC) brings all these tools together into one integrated voice and data network; however, you can purchase standalone solutions, too. Circumstances may dictate the most appropriate communications tool. For example, someone talking to a customer might want to launch a chat session with another team member to get answers to questions to resolve a problem. At other times, you may want to invite several team members to participate in a web conference where you put up a slide presentation to discuss a new product or service launch. And when face-to- face communication matters, video conferencing answers the need no matter where the participants are located. With any conferencing, you’ll want a headset to block out background noise and ensure all parties can hear each other clearly.

Set regular check-in times: Check in on a regular basis with each of your remote team members.  While an email may be fine to inquire about the status of a project, chat or a phone call are more effective ways to communicate to ensure there are no unresolved issues.

Employ cloud collaboration tools: storage and sharing enables anyone to access a document on any device from wherever they are as long as they have Internet access. You can share documents with other team members and even with customers. Cloud-based document collaboration enables one or several of your small business team members to work together on the development of a document or presentation. All someone needs to do is create a project folder and drag and drop files. Next send a URL or invite others to view or edit documents, adding their comments.

Create a friendly environment: Communication shouldn’t only be about business. To keep your small business culture alive among your remote workers, share some non-work related information during conferences. And don’t forget to offer praise and words of encouragement via email or on the phone to remote workers (as well as you on-site staff) so they feel integral to the organization.

Get together: Even with all of today’s tools for communication, there’s great value in sitting down over a meal or cup of coffee to get caught up. Try to visit your remote employees a few times a year or bring them to the office. When they visit headquarters, plan for a social outing so your team can get to know each other better and strengthen relationships.

You don’t need to skip a beat in communicating and collaborating when employees are remote. Just provide the proper tools and procedures and your team can work together as effectively as if they all were under your small business roof.