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5 Tips for Training Remote Employees

work imageDonna Wells is the CEO of, software that provides the best online training for small businesses. It makes employee training easier, faster and more cost-effective than ever before.

Every year, I find myself working with more colleagues who work remotely — from home, from outside the office and even outside the country. At my company, more than half of our full-time employees work in places other than our headquarters in Palo Alto, California. It’s not just a trend among software companies; it’s where most businesses are moving. Nearly 75% of the American workforce –- and 35 % of the global workforce — will be mobile by 2013, according to market research firm IDC.

Getting all of these remote folks performing well and in sync is a critical discipline to master. It’s not so simple. There are risks in hiring remote teams such as feelings of isolation and the problems managers face in keeping remote workers motivated, informed and engaged. In my experience, there are some important rules of the road to help get your far-flung employees up to speed and at peak performance.

1. Hire Smart: Recruit Top Talent with Remote Experience

Accept that you’re hiring for two skill sets in any remote worker: The job skills relevant to his or her role plus a demonstrated ability to collaborate and contribute while away from colleagues and manager. You may think you’ve discovered an ideal new product manager out of state with a perfectly aligned C.V. and skill set. But if it’s his or her first gig outside a conventional workplace, that’s a riskier hire than someone with comparable skills but also the experience and confidence in of long-distance employment. Who fits that profile? Typically it’s strong communicators and classic self-starters who are team-oriented. Screen carefully.

2. Give Them the Tools They Need to Succeed

Remote workers have high standards when it comes to fast and reliable access to the information they need to do their jobs. They can be far less forgiving than your HQ office employees. Those tools include obvious basics (i.e. email, Internet and phones), but it also extends to include private networks, shared docs, wikis and logins to the large and increasing number of SaaS applications you probably use to run your business. Our outstanding, remote product manager built an online course to give new employees everything they need to be up-and-running on their first day. I strongly recommend that you have your remote employees’ systems ready when they arrive, or they may not be sticking around for long.

3. Kick Things Off in Person

Plan to have new remote teammates spend their first days or weeks at HQ. As good as collaboration tools are, they are not effective in building the personal relationships and communication shortcuts that come very quickly face-to-face. For the employee, it’s a chance to feel a strong sense of belonging and to establish a positive bond with the boss and whole team. For managers, it’s an opportunity to convey the company culture, to set expectations and start building the trust you’ll need later on to hit mutual goals.

After that initial visit to HQ, settle on the right frequency of follow-up face-to-face meetings. We’ve typically flown the whole U.S.-based team to HQ for the start of each Sprint. Now that the team knows each other very well, we’re experimenting with doing some Sprint kick-offs remotely this year. We bring 1 to 2 of our Latvian colleagues to California once a year, which is a highlight for the HQ team, not just for our Riga-based colleagues.

4. Focus on How You Use the Tools

There are dozens of high-quality and inexpensive tools available to small businesses for training and communicating with remote teams. But which you choose matters less than how you use them. I’ve had to learn to check in frequently during team conference calls to see if remote folks have questions or comments. Use the features that allow simultaneous chat during an online presentation. Both tactics make it easier for remote folks to get a word in edgewise. We use Skype as our primary tool for informal training sessions and group conference calls; Dropbox and for doc sharing and storage; Rally for agile development team management. We’re all on Yammer all day, every day. Yammer handles the continuous stream of banter, trash talk and rapidfire Q&A that makes up the bulk of our company’s daily communication. In our case, that stream of consciousness covers 10 time zones simultaneously.

5. Let Them Learn at Their Own Pace

Remember that training and then running a remote team requires flexibility that isn’t natural or instinctual to a lot of managers. Devise training and learning processes and programs that play to the employee’s routine and schedule (and time zone), not yours. Let them review new materials at their own pace and on their own. Give them time go back to clarify issues they’re still fuzzy on and to customize their on-boarding experience.

Take any of these issues lightly and you invite unwanted risk. Remember, remote employees will soon make up the majority of your team, if they don’t already.

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