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Cathy Cowan is the founder and president of Cowan & Company Communications, a public relations firm in Toronto. (VITO AMATI)
Cathy Cowan is the founder and president of Cowan & Company Communications, a public relations firm in Toronto. (VITO AMATI)

LEADERSHIP LAB

Five tips for managing a telecommuting team Add to ...

This column is part of Globe Careers’ Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about leadership and management. Follow us at @Globe_Careers. Find all Leadership Lab stories at tgam.ca/leadershiplab

The momentum of the work-from-home movement suffered a serious setback last year after Marissa Mayer banned Yahoo Inc. employees from working from home. While the debate about the pros and cons of telecommuting rages on, a recent survey by the commercial banking unit of Bank of Montreal shows that telecommuting is actually on the rise in Canada, with 56 per cent of Canadians working at a company that offers telecommuting, up from 44 per cent in 2013.

In that survey, the majority of workers report that being able to work remotely has a positive impact on morale, productivity and the quality of work. However, an earlier BMO survey of business owners identified perceived decreased morale and productivity as the primary reasons more business owners do not offer employees the opportunity to work from home.

I believe that the problem isn’t with the concept of working from home, but with the management of those working from home. More than 10 years ago, I founded a virtual public relations agency in Toronto where my team primarily works from our respective home offices. Our clients, which include some of Canada’s top brands, don’t care where we work, as long as we get them results. Our clients have the added benefit of paying a fraction of the price it would cost if we had a traditional agency model where they had to cover off expensive office space and all the overhead that goes with it.

So what’s our secret? How do we manage our telecommuting team for success?

1. Enforce office hours

While it seems as if we’re all plugged in 24 hours a day, the business world’s core hours are from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. or thereabouts, depending on your industry. That means I expect my team to be at their desks and answering their phones and e-mails every day, Monday to Friday during those hours, unless they’re in a meeting or at lunch. Those are our business hours. If there’s a problem reaching them during those hours, then we need to have a talk.

2. Log off

On the flip side, you need to make sure your team isn’t online late every night – especially tempting when your work computer is just a few steps away. Burn out isn’t pretty for anyone. One of the advantages of working from home is better work-life balance, so you need to make sure your team turns off the computer and enjoys that perk. Sure, every business is going to have its share of late nights, but they should be the exception and not the rule.

By the way, that means you, as the manager, need to log off too, so your team members aren’t staying at their desks to answer your stray questions at 11 p.m.

3. Make staff accountable

It’s no different than a regular office – you need to make staff accountable for their work by giving them deadlines and holding them to it. Ask your staff to send you activity reports outlining what’s on their plate for the day or week, so you can give them feedback on their next step, even if you can’t peer over their cubicle wall and see what they’re working on.

4. Hold regular team meetings

Meeting in person is still crucial. Face-to-face contact, relationship-building and brainstorming, and plain old fun will never go out of style. But it’s no good to have your team meetings at the local coffee shop and air out all your company business in public. So find a virtual office to hold your team meetings. There are many options out there.

Depending on your needs, you can pay to have the virtual office as your mailing address, set up daily office space when you need it, book boardroom space, and even have their administrative and tech teams augment your team resources if needed.

5. Time sheets

A mainstay with consulting firms is having the entire staff track their time in some form of time sheet to determine how many hours should be billed back to clients. However, time sheets are also useful in corporate environments to see where your team is spending their time – especially if you can’t see what they’re working on moment-by-moment. Time sheets are a great tool for increasing your team’s productivity and really understanding where all your resources are being deployed.

As Richard Branson said in his blog during last year’s telecommuting brouhaha, “To force everybody to work in offices is old school thinking. … Choice empowers people and makes for a more content work force.” If the potential of telecommuting is more productive employees and a stronger business, isn’t it worth altering your management style to make it work?

Cathy Cowan (@cowanandcompany) is the founder and president of Cowan & Company Communications, a public relations firm in Toronto.

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