Tips for Improving Productivity Among Remote Workers & Virtual Assistants
By John Hurley
Although the concept of remote work became an instant reality to many professionals in 2020, it’s far from being a new concept. For almost two decades, digital nomads have been working from every corner of the Earth and doing so successfully.
Nonetheless, despite the numerous benefits of working remotely, the digital workforce does meet its fair share of challenges. According to Buffer’s The 2020 State of Remote Work research study, 20% of respondents pointed out communication issues, 20% felt lonely, 18% felt unable to unplug after work, 12% struggled with distractions, and 7% had trouble staying motivated. Now, consider the fact that all these elements impact productivity. You will see that remote workers and virtual assistants need much more help to remain efficient and productive.
Fortunately, addressing these issues is far from impossible. In fact, based on my extensive experience of managing remote teams distributed across the globe, improving productivity takes a few small adjustments and a consistent commitment to overall wellbeing. So, without further ado, the following are my tips for improving productivity among remote workers and virtual assistants.
Start with Team Communication
When it comes to the successful functioning of any organization, the first thing to address is communication. And that doesn’t just mean the interpersonal relationships between employees or management.
Communication skills in the workplace drive success factors, most importantly, the efficiency with which tasks are assigned and completed. Interestingly enough, managers rarely feel comfortable doing their job.
According to a 2016 Harvard Business Review article, a mind-boggling 69% of managers feel uncomfortable communicating with their teams, 37% don’t like giving feedback, 20% don’t feel comfortable acknowledging achievements, and 19% have trouble with providing clear directions. This is worrying data for any business, regardless of whether it relies on teamwork or individual effort.
Fortunately, however, it is quite possible to tackle this issue. To ensure that your employees are getting the instructions, support, and mentoring they require to do a great job, try to make the following changes to internal communication.
Be Clear About Company Roles and Responsibilities
The first impactful improvement you can make in communication is to revamp your onboarding process. Simply put, a person needs to know their role within the organization from the moment they start working there. Moreover, they must be aware of their daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly responsibilities. They should also know who their superiors are and how they can expect support from them. Ideally, all of this will be communicated by your HR department when hiring. But, it’s also not a bad idea to have it in writing for quick reference.
Set Expectations and Enforce Boundaries
When assigning duties, you will want to be very clear with your employees. As you’re working with remote professionals and likely communicating through email or chat, do your best to explain each aspect of a task. Communicate your expectations about the quality of work you expect, define deadlines precisely, and give instructions on how employees can ask for support. In addition to communicating what you demand, be clear about how you expect employees to respect boundaries. Remote workers will often feel compelled to adapt to their employer’s terms, even when unnecessary. So if you don’t require them to reply to emails at 2 a.m. or work during local holidays, be explicit about it. It’ll help them structure their workday and will go a long way in promoting wellbeing.
As a leader, you need to understand that you’re, essentially, a role model. Your people will do as you do. So, if you expect that your employees communicate openly and freely, don’t give them any reason to be afraid of your reaction. Along the same lines, if you want them to stick to deadlines, you will need to do the same.
As an employer, you don’t have to oversee every little thing. Yes, micromanaging will give you a greater sense of control. But, it’ll also discourage your team from doing things quickly and efficiently. So, instead of hovering, aim to mentor and educate. Moreover, try to keep an open mind to alternative ways of doing things. Who knows, you might just find that your remote employees already have that productivity thing going on for them.
Remember that you can do a lot to boost communication within your organization if you provide the right resources. Solutions like Skype, Slack, Zoom, Google Chat, and Google Meet are excellent apps that help remote teams work seamlessly together. Pick the one that meets your requirements the best, and stick to it. You’ll see, having a designated virtual office is much more efficient than having to deal with the often-overwhelming nature of email.
Encourage Face-to-Face Communication
Another thing that will promote positive company culture and help improve in-house communication will be regular face-to-face meetings. Yes, with today’s video chat apps, you can have these even with your remote workers. Research from 2020 shows that organizations that hold regular face-to-face meetings display higher productivity levels. Moreover, psychologists have long known the effectiveness of these conversations in understanding employee motivation, struggles, and points of view.
With this in mind, it’s not a bad idea to get everyone on your team together (online) for a weekly team meeting, as well as to schedule one-on-ones at least bi-monthly. You’ll definitely reap the benefits, while the investment remains small at just an hour or two of your time every month.
Organize Team Processes and Systems
Now that you’ve addressed the most impactful contributing factor to productivity, it’s time to get to the more technical aspects of helping your employees get their work done.
For one, you can take a look at your current processes and organize them in ways that’ll be more suited for virtual work. According to research, 88% of remote workers struggle with inconsistent work practices, which is, fortunately, an easy fix. Something as simple as creating workflow templates, checklists, or even a written guideline can help people know what to do next. It can also ensure that no necessary steps are skipped due to an oversight and can be used as a cost-effective training tool.
You can further improve the efficiency of your team by using a variety of digital software solutions.
Many virtual assistants work on an hourly basis, which means they need a quick way to track time. Moreover, remote workers often have to put together weekly or monthly reports, timesheets, and meeting data, all of which can take up valuable resources. Fortunately, contemporary time trackers come as desktop apps or browser extensions and have automatization capabilities coupled with automatic reporting features. If you’re interested in adding this type of app to your team’s workflow, you can try out a solution like TimeTackle. Or, if you’ve got the skills and time, you can program your own micro-apps by using automation scripts in Shortcuts or IFTTT.
Keeping up with project progression is another workflow struggle for distributed teams. As physical distance prevents contributors from getting in-person updates, a virtual tool that improves collaboration is a must for most organizations. Many apps will allow your employees to keep tabs on task status, but the most popular project management software solutions include Basecamp, ProofHub, and Teamwork. One word of advice for implementing this type of solution into your team’s workflow is to choose one option and stick with it for at least a few months. This will allow everyone to get used to the software and help you get a real sense of the features and how they work.
Manage Digital Assets
Another thing you’ll need to consider about collaborating with remote professionals is that you’ll need a digital asset management system. Sending email attachments is messy, unreliable, and can cause hiccups, so it’s best to invest in some form of cloud storage. If you’re a Google Workspace user, you can get anywhere between 30 GB to 5TB of storage space per month. However, this solution can get pricey, so you may wish to look for alternative options that will offer you more advanced functionality, including customizable access, tagging capabilities, analytical data, and multiple download options.
As you can see, these are all small process adaptations, yet they offer high rewards thanks to speeding up or eliminating repetitive time-wasting processes. Best of all, they’re also highly applicable in diverse work settings, which is why so many leaders use them to help improve productivity.
One of the main reasons business owners shy away from hiring distributed teams is that they’re scared of the risks. And yes, giving up control over your employees can be daunting. However, running a successful business isn’t about avoiding risk at all costs. Instead, it’s about assessing the pros and cons of an undertaking. Furthermore, it’s creating a risk management plan that will prepare you for both worst and best-case scenarios.
So what are the main concerns about remote work that you should be aware of? Well, there are two.
Firstly, you need to be prepared that conducting your entire business online can open you up to cybersecurity attacks. A September 2020 report by Malwarebytes found that as many as 1 in 5 small and medium-sized businesses suffered a security breach due to a remote worker.
Fortunately, however, work-from-home security issues are very much preventable. Havocshield, for example, suggests three easy fixes that organizations need to take. These include setting up endpoint security for BYOD, investing in an enterprise-grade password manager, and using a VPN.
And while the idea of suffering a cybersecurity attack seems like the greatest risk you might encounter, there’s another one that you’re much more likely to experience.
Employee burnout is, unfortunately, quite common among the digital workforce. According to Gallup, 29% of remote workers who worked from home very often or always felt burnt out in 2020. Considering that the consequences of such all-encompassing tiredness include absenteeism, loss of productivity, and poor physical and mental health, this is a risk to take seriously.
To reduce the likelihood of your remote workers experiencing burnout, look for ways to promote health and wellness. In addition to standard health benefits, consider offering perks like a monthly gym allowance, free psychological counseling, or personal wellbeing training programs. It’s also not a bad idea to rethink the number of days off you allow. Statistical data shows that burnout rates tend to be the lowest in Europe. There, employees often get 30+ paid days off per year, ensuring that they’re well-rested and operating at peak cognitive capacity when working.
What about the other contributors to employee performance? The past decade saw a wide variety of scientific studies questioning the impact job satisfaction, intrinsic motivation, engagement rates, and other factors have on productivity. And the latest additions to elements boosting productivity? Ownership and accountability.
To understand how ownership contributes to performance, we must first divide it into its three main constituents. These include the already mentioned accountability, that is, responsibility for a task, project, etc. Then there is the element of being prepared to take initiative. And, finally, ownership also means knowing when to ask for help.
But the one thing many leaders forget is that harboring a culture of ownership doesn’t only mean expecting people to admit their mistakes. Much more importantly than that, it means encouraging a sense of pride in a job well done.
So, to get your remote workers and virtual assistants more actively invested in their jobs, why not consider complimenting them on doing something well? Or, even better, why not involve them in decision-making processes? After all, if you expect a highly skilled professional to oversee an entire part of a project, you can only benefit from listening to their insights.
Another great thing you can do that will encourage people to try harder is to celebrate your team’s wins publically. A virtual party, a feature on the company’s website, or even a social media post acknowledging a person’s contribution can be just as, if not more, motivational as a monetary bonus.
Maintain a Balance
Lastly, while you look for ways to make your remote team more productive, you need to understand that productivity cannot exist as a consistent element. No one can perform at their peak all the time, so don’t expect your employees to do so either.
Instead of pushing for more work, consider making room for relaxation as well.
According to Northwestern Medicine, a 5-minute break can improve focus. A stress-relieving activity like yoga or meditation can improve cognition and reduce distractions. And, finally, a 10-minute chat can help boost problem-solving capabilities.
There’s a lot you can do to include some downtime in your team’s routine. For one, you can encourage a bit of water cooler talk in your digital workspace. You can also experiment with games or competitions. For example, try issuing a challenge for the person who runs the most miles in a week or handles the most customer service questions in a month. Alternatively, you can also organize remote team-building activities. These will encourage people to get to know one another and form bonds, which will help them work better as a team.
There’s a lot that you can do to help your remote employees to find more fun elements in their work. And, ultimately, it won’t be just them profiting from such an approach. You’re sure to see the benefits as well.
No matter the type of business you run, whether your team works remotely full-time or if you’re just giving the WFH model a try, it’s safe to say that ensuring productivity needs to be one of your top priorities.
However, as you can see, doing work more quickly and efficiently doesn’t necessarily depend on the amount of input from your remote workers. More than that, it depends on the relationships you have built with them, the workflows you’ve established, and their intrinsic motivation, which is also tied to their overall wellbeing.
Are you ready to make some impactful changes within your company? If the answer’s yes, this may just be the right time to look at how you stand with all these contributing factors. Who knows, you might finally get to make a few changes that’ll actually result in the outcomes you’re after.