Most people will ask me if I work in my pajamas. Others will ask if I sleep in all the time or take a mid-day break to exercise. While only one of those questions can be answered with a "yes," I am not shy about expressing that I like working from home.   

The benefits to remote work are real - for employees and employers. Data shows that over 80% of remote workers feel less stress and that millennials desire the flexibility to work remotely. Productivity and efficiently are also believed to increase with remote work. This means remote teams can help your recruiting efforts and help build a more efficient, productive and healthy workforce

Building teams in the same location can be challenging, and building a remote team can be even more so. Here's seven best practices to consider if you want to build a great remote team and enjoy the benefits that come with it. These tips come from my personal experiences working remotely, working with distributed teams for my company and insights from an expert in distributed workforces.

1. Great communication is key

Like any great relationship, business or otherwise, communication is key. Yet, it's not easy when everyone is in a different place. Luckily, it's possible to establish good communication through a combination of tools and processes.

Videoconferencing allows for more connective experiences than phone calls by allowing everyone to see someone's face and observe their body language. Zoom has made videoconferencing easier than ever, and many companies have a "camera always on" policy. Slack, a popular collaboration software, makes regular communication easy and efficient with their desktop and mobile apps. Slack allows other complimentary software tools to integrate - allowing teams to maximize their communication.

Processes are the frameworks necessary to sustain good communication. Leaders need to clearly define regular communication protocols and set expectations for when a remote worker must be accessible, and on which medium (Slack, text, phone, etc). For as great as technology is, it won't help unless people use it reliably.

2. Foster meaningful connections

Humans are social animals, and we need connection. When managing a remote workforce, it's important to take every opportunity to create and foster real connection.

"Creating authentic, interpersonal connections is a big challenge in a distributed environment," says Niki Lustig, Director of Learning and Development at GitHub. "It's too easy to hop on a call and launch right into the agenda and discussion. Consider creating team rituals that help each person get to know each other."

Lustig is an expert in working with distributed teams. More than half of GitHub's global workforce works remotely. So, what's her advice?

Lustig suggests that leaders start one-to-one and team meetings by "checking in" and sharing how each person is doing. She also encourages people to share more about themselves, perhaps sharing a personal story from the weekend. Lastly, everyone should use a real photo for their profiles, instead of an avatar.

3. Create ways to meet in person

Companies that build successful distributed teams further the focus on meaningful connection by helping their workers spend time together in real life. These companies allocate budget and resources to help team members meet for dinner, volunteer and enjoy outdoor activities. While a single off-site is a must, some companies organize smaller meetups every quarter to keep the connection as strong as possible.

4. Software helps you hire and manage

Technology is not only helping remote teams communicate, it's also helping managers hire the right people and manage their workforce. Smart leaders are leaning on software to save time, build better teams and manage them more effectively.

One advantage for hiring talent to a remote team is you do not need to filter candidates by location, or a willingness to move. You can simply hire the best candidate. That still doesn't mean that hiring isn't competitive - and companies need all the help they can get. Turing helps companies hire elite pre-vetted engineering talent for remote teams. They also use artificial intelligence talent monitoring and management. Using software to accelerate a talent search will help you save time and money.

In terms of management, identify software that can help you do more than manage a project. You need a solution that better manages your team and helps you be a better leader. Simply put, you need to address the human side of remote team leadership.15Five is a software platform that helps managers set objectives, conduct weekly check-ins and dive deeper with one-on-one meetings. Software helps take the burden off managers and also helps identify blind spots that are more common with distributed teams.

Leaders of distributed teams recommend that software be used to augment and improve human resources, workforce optimization and leadership. 

5. Invest in developing your team

A bad leader is someone that assigns you tasks. A great leader (and a great company) invests the time and energy to continually train and develop their team. This is no different with a distributed workforce.

"Learning and development is not just another perk or benefit, it's an investment in building a great team and a talented workforce," says Lustig. "The challenge with a distributed workforce, especially one that is global, is making sure that you meet the unique needs and learning styles of each region you have workers. GitHub offers an annual learning and development stipend so employees can learn what, when and how they want - whether it's books, conferences, online workshops or mentoring."

Learning is the key to personal and professional growth, so prioritize spending on learning and development. In many cases, you can fund this budget simply with the cost savings that come with remote teams. Also, take this advice and provide employees with the flexibility to pursue the learning that they're most interested in, and the method that is most effective. 

6. Focus on the right metrics

When employees are at an office, it's easier to gain a sense of the time they spend working. This is more challenging when a team is remote. Companies and leaders should embrace this dynamic, and the fact that it's a big reason why some people like to work remotely.

When leading a distributed team, focus on the metrics that matter. Instead of worrying about the time someone works, focus on objectives, outcomes and behavior. The most important factors are that a remote worker completes their objectives in a timely manner, and does so professionally. Focus on what is being accomplished more than you focus on how long it took them to complete it.

7. Don't forget about culture

Creating and maintaining culture is important for the success of any company or business. Like most things, distance can make it even harder to build a company culture across a distributed team. 

While tools exist, the key to achieving great culture for a remote team is to bake culture into everything you do. Instill the company culture in team meetings, one-on-ones, off-sites and any other company functions. Ensure that remote team members are aware of the company's core values, and lead by example. Lastly, stay aware of your company's mission and values during the hiring process. It's easier to build and maintain a culture when everyone hired understands and is aligned with that culture. 

Final Word

We live in a digital age, and technology has transformed how we think about work and employment. Distributed teams are effective ways to ensure you hire the best people, regardless of their location. They bring high levels of satisfaction and can even lead to higher levels of productivity and quality of life. Consider the advice above, and determine if your business can benefit from a distributed workforce model.

Published on: May 20, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.