This article was originally published by Fairfax Media.

Matt Ashwin has been a garden designer for more than two decades. He started because he loved the idea of a job that was outdoors and physical, and allowed him to make things grow. When an accident meant he had to down tools during his recovery, he moved inside to the office.

He’s still making things grow, but now it’s the landscape business Goodmanors, of which he became co-owner in 2008. But being behind a desk as Managing Director is a long way from life on a shovel, and comes with an entirely different set of challenges. One of those is managing staff in a business that operates across constantly changing sites as well as their head office.

Managing a remote workforce

With a business turnover of about $6 million, but looking to grow that to about $10 million, Ashwin is responsible for 18 staff at the head office and on site, and about 40 subcontractors. It means he needs to work out how to get the most out of staff when they’re out of the office and help them get the tools they need to do their job.

“What we found when we looked at allowing them to work remotely is that they still wanted to come back to the office to do the management side of work,” Ashwin says of his project managers. “When they’re on site their mind-space is focused on the construction items.”

He’s found that even with provision of all the necessary technology, it’s the resources in the office such as the library of books and references, and other staff including designers to talk over problems with, that draws project managers back to the office to work.

Promoting a positive workplace culture

NSW chair of the Australian Psychological Society’s College of Organisations Psychologists, Dr Ben Searle, says while the benefits of remote working are well known, it doesn’t mean there are advantages in every situation.

“We have to go back to the question of why people work. Beyond the basic issues of salary… there are other benefits, things like our need for autonomy, to be able to control things around us, to make an impact on the world and the feeling that you can do things well,” Searle says.

“But the other big issue is relativeness needs. People feel a need for social connections with other people and when people work remotely, they do often start to feel a sense of being disconnected from others.”

Ashwin is attuned to this and says they make a special effort to ensure staff that work on site, including the young apprentices, feel included. “Something we’ve done is Friday lunch in the office where every fortnight one of us takes turns to cook for everyone else. We might be giving away a couple of hours at the end of the day of producing work on site, but I think the flow-back of that is they’re much more engaged in us as a group.”

Searle encourages this kind of regular structured activity to help build a sense of connection between all staff, as well as having the right kind of tech tools and the support to help remote staff become comfortable using that technology in different environments.

Introducing new technology in small business

ServiceM8 strategic partnerships manager, Darren Ford, says the company’s field service app is tailored for local services that send staff out on location to complete jobs, be that garden contractors, plumbers, electricians or locksmiths.

“There’s been really great financial and accounting software for a long time but most businesses, even when they’re using the latest technology for accounting, are using completely manual paper based systems to run their operations.”

ServiceM8 minimises the risk of businesses falling behind on paperwork as their client list grows, or missing appointments and forgetting to invoice. That means streamlined cash-flow with onsite invoicing, on-demand business reporting and productivity gains.

Ford says the best tip for businesses is to introduce new technology incrementally, for instance by first replacing work-orders with ServiceM8, then the invoicing system, then adding email campaign capability and other functions.

Critically, it improves communication channels between head office, staff on location and the clients. That has flow on effects for business professionalism, but also helps maximise engagement by making it easier for staff to do their job when they’re away from the office.

Agile working needs communication, tools… and trust

Vodafone’s General Manager of Enterprise, Neelum Prakash says that flexible working is becoming more and more common with businesses of all sizes. “It’s proven to be a great motivator and driver of productivity,” she says. “It’s important that small businesses have the right tools to stay in touch with clients and employees, and to work effectively from wherever they are. That’s why we’ve included apps like ServiceM8 in the ReadyApps suite, so we can help ensure businesses never fall behind on work when they’re out and about.”

For Searle, the key to managing staff and keeping business running smoothly is trust. “Trust is really important in these remote working relationships because in situations where people feel like they will not be trusted to get the work done while they’re away, it amplifies the pressure they feel to be back in the office so the boss sees they’re getting something done.”

Ashwin agrees: “We try and provide a pretty flexible environment as far as time and work goes… Point number one is that when you employ someone, you’ve got to trust them. The guys we put out on site, we trust them 100 percent.”

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Fairfax Media

Fairfax Media

Red Wire partner Fairfax Media is a leading multi-platform media company that attracts engaged audiences right across Australia and New Zealand. It's a go-to source for news and current events.