by Emil Heidkamp, founder and senior learning strategist at Sonata Digital

Remote work is more than just an emergency measure: done right, it can be a powerful strategy for increasing worker productivity and recruiting top global talent.

But to realize those benefits, it takes more than simple “tips and tricks”. Organizations need to think strategically about how to manage and support remote workers, and provide clear guidelines to team leaders and individual contributors on how to operate effectively as a virtual team.

So what does a proper virtual work strategy look like? At a high level, organizations need to:

  • Clearly define remote work policies and processes at the organizational level: In our experience, even organizations that invest heavily in management training and standardizing processes often fail to provide workers with clear guidance on managing and working in virtual teams. Instead, teams are left to improvise, with predictably uneven results. By providing clear direction on what tools to use, how to communicate and how to balance trust with accountability, organizations can spare remote workers and their managers months or even years of painful of trial-and-error.

  • Expect managers to enforce (and model) remote work guidelines: You wouldn’t expect a manager to tolerate an office-based team member who was constantly stepping out of the office or leaving important documents at home. Similarly, managers should be able to take meaningful corrective action(from coaching to discipline) with remote workers who don’t respond quickly to communications or fail to upload critical files to shared drives. Of course, this cuts both ways. Remote workers can’t be blamed if their manager sends important directives via email when everyone is supposed to communicate via chat, or if office-based teammates habitually forget to invite virtual workers to meetings. To that end, you might want to ask remote workers for “360” style feedback on managers’ remote leadership skills.

  • Take remote workers’ career development seriously: While the average virtual worker is 13% more productive than their office-based peers, they are 50% less likely to receive pay raises and promotions. Without opportunities to advance and be recognized, even team members who appreciate the benefits of remote work may come to view it as a career dead end, hurting morale and retention. In order to get peak performance from virtual workers, organizations need to invest in their professional development and provide opportunities for advancement that don’t require relocating to headquarters.

  • Fully integrate remote work into your operating model: It’s not surprising that organizations who fully commit to remote work tend to get the best performance from remote workers. If managers view remote work as a priviledge that can be revoked, and recall poorly-performing virtual workers back to the office instead of coaching them to work better remotely, then your organization will never reach peak remote workforce productivity. Similarly, leaders who regard remote work as a necessary evil for overcoming local talent shortages, rather than a competitive advantage, are unlikely to seize the opportunities remote work creates for elevating performance.

  • Welcome the challenge: Ultimately, remote work requires organizations to practice all the same management and leadership skills they should be applying with their traditional workforce, but with far less margin for error. The virtual environment amplifies everything: if a manager isn’t good at making team members feel included and valued, then their team members will feel even more excluded and unappreciated working remotely. If a team doesn’t do the best job of managing people’s workloads, then the imbalance will get even worse online. But the same effect can be positive, too: organizations and managers who can raise their game to effectively support a remote workforce will be rewarded with higher-than-ever levels of productivity.