Being proficient at managing remote employees requires a mental leap, especially for traditionally minded managers.
At first, business leaders, used to monitoring productivity based upon workers’ “desk time” and visible activity levels, may find a shift to remote work foreign and unwieldy. Employees, too, may feel out of sorts in the beginning, as they adjust to significant shifts in their days.
After all, while everyone seems to grasp what “work from home” means, not everyone has experienced it yet. And there are definitely pros and cons to working remotely.
Expectations when leading a remote team
To lead a remote team well, managers may discover they need to loosen their reins a little while finding ways to continue to hold employees accountable.
Without the ability to continuously monitor employees in a shared office space, they may find success by focusing more on what gets done and whether it meets well-defined quality standards. It’s helpful, too, to be willing to experiment a little with technology and how meetings are conducted.
In other words, successful pivots to virtual work – whether planned months in advance or in response to a natural disaster or a global pandemic – require that managers be willing to recalibrate how they lead their people and move away from the idea of micromanagement..
Leaders should also become familiar with work from home best practices and expect a certain amount of trial and error. To get you started, below are seven basic tips to help business leaders when it comes to managing remote workers.
Typically, there are four main challenges supervisors and business owners encounter when managing a remote workforce.
- Lack of face time with coworkers and supervisors – face-to-face interaction is vital to company culture and workplace encounters. The absence of in-person communication can be strongly felt by virtual teams. Consider collaboration tools to improve employee engagement and increase social interaction between remote team members.
- Video fatigue – On the flip side of the previous bullet, using Zoom all the time to aid connection can have worse consequences. Empower employees to decide as a team and when meeting internally if they want to be on camera or not. Requiring all cameras all the time – unless client facing – can erode morale and is just another way to senselessly control and micromanage what employees are doing.
- Communication breakdowns and bottlenecks – When working remotely, we can’t peek over the cubicle or slip down the hall to see if a colleague or supervisor is around to answer a quick question. Plus, for all their convenience, slack messages and emails can go unnoticed. Managers can help address these issues by modeling effective communication strategies.
- Surrounding distractions – Whether it’s another coffee shop customer accidentally spilling sugar on a remote worker or a cheerful toddler giving a mighty shout from the living room during a zoom call, distractions seem to come with the remote work territory.
Assuming such incidents don’t become routine, patience is helpful – especially when remote work is a temporary solution to a short-term event, situation or crisis.
It’s important to set clear expectations when discussing productivity standards with your remote team. Some productivity standards will vary with the job; others may be standard across the company.
Individual standards must be analyzed and documented, however informally. For example, you and your teleworking team may decide that any developer assigned a project must deliver code ready to be tested in five working days, and if a deadline won’t be met there must be 48 hours’ notice.
Meanwhile, a call center employee may need to resolve 10 client calls an hour while ensuring there are no crying babies in the background. A recruiter may need to conduct 20 phone interviews and fill five positions a month.
Although documenting productivity standards may seem like too much of an extra effort, it can help spot trends that need to be addressed. It can help you spot burnout or the need to provide additional training to improve a bottleneck that impacts productivity.
An important aspect of successfully managing remote employees is to make all necessary tools easily accessible. To meet that need, leaders and teams may have to puzzle through what should be put in place to ease a telecommuting transition.
Remote employees need the same access to things utilized by onsite employees, which may include (but are not limited to):
- Policy and procedure manuals
- Presentation templates and supplies
- Mail supplies and stationery
- Apps & Software programs
- Corporate credit card
Most remote work can be conducted with little more than a computer, internet access, a phone and a headset. However, there may be additional tools and resources you should consider to help employees remain productive such as:
- Access to digital communication tools and files
- A small printer or an account at a local copy shop or mail services center, all with clearly communicated spending limits
- Company laptops
- Reliabile internet connection or access to a co-working space
- Digital video conferencing tools like Zoom or Microsoft Teams
Remember: You and your remote employees may find that some tasks must be conducted in the office for security reasons or because it’s simply more efficient to meet in person. Be ready to accept the limits of remote work for some portions of a job or for individual units within a larger division.
In a perfect world, new remote employees would train to use relevant remote technology and protocols six months before implementation.
Yet, even if a shift to remote work is anticipated to take place in a matter of weeks (or days), a four- or 24-hour trial run may reveal unanticipated shortcomings to a seemingly workable remote plan.
Depending on your circumstances, you might have the whole team participating or only one or two members.
For remote teams, it may take a little extra effort to recreate common workplace water cooler communication. And when there is a mix of off-site and on-site employees, remote managers should seek team building opportunities to include everyone whenever possible.
It may seem artificial or cumbersome at first, but encourage your remote workers to contact you and other team members regularly – and vice versa. What constitutes “regular contact” depends, of course, on the job and the tasks work from home employees must accomplish.
Obviously, email, instant messages and phone or Zoom video calls are essential for remote interaction.
When possible, it’s helpful for employees to keep their workday calendars up to date on a centralized platform or application. Also useful are “away” notifications on software and out-of-office email replies during normal work hours. These seemingly little things help minimize the risks and frustrations associated with those dreadful communications bottlenecks.
For fully remote offices, encourage team members to pick up the phone or schedule short video calls to cut down on the back and forth.
Building better interactions during meetings
To monitor progress and foster collegiality, it’s helpful to establish a set time for group online interactions. Brief daily check-ins or staff meetings help leaders and project managers to assess situations and identify roadblocks with each employees work load.
It may be helpful to revisit how to run a successful meeting. There’s not a huge difference between remote and in-person meetings, but generally it’s helpful to:
- Have a clear agenda
- Set expectations ahead of the meeting by adding “be camera ready” or “camera optional” to the invite
- Call roll at the beginning of large meetings so that everyone knows who is present
- Encourage everyone to mute themselves when they’re not speaking
- Schedule no meeting days/time frames for the team to have dedicated flow time to get work done
The agile process, developed within the software community but now applied in several industries, can be useful when managing teleworkers. Many remote teams find the process helps nurture accountability while also helping managers monitor projects.
As with the rest of the advice here, there’s no one-size-fits-all for how often a manager should reach out to remote workers.
Yet the most effective one-on-one calls aren’t just about monitoring productivity. They can also be powerful means of keeping remote employees motivated and engaged.
A great initiative would be to ideally, schedule one-on-one calls – whether daily, weekly or biweekly – this can help a manager:
- Determine if the employee is doing well overall
- Work with the staff member to identify and eliminate bottlenecks
- Discuss plans for the employee’s professional development
- Answer a range of questions relevant to the employee
Depending upon the employee and the nature of their job, more or less routine interaction may be required. For example, Amanda may need a call once a week while Matthew may require daily calls.
Keeping productive workflows in mind and as much as schedules permit, supervisors should be adaptable to staff needs and calendars.
Staff members or trusted industry peers who have traveled the remote road before may have advice to share, including what software is most helpful or what’s required to set up a home office.
These insights can be shared via PDFs, short videos or informal question-and-answer video calls.
Other valuable remote management tips include:
- How to manage the ebb and flow of ordinary days and peak periods
- Favorite local eateries that deliver
- Maintaining work-life balance while working remote
- How to incorporate healthy behaviors
- Time management ideas
- Personal strategies for staying on task and organized
Budgets play an important side note when talking about remote workers. Some business leaders may assume that instituting remote work and cutting office space by 50% equals a 50% reduction in the expense of housing employees in a traditional office.
However, the formula isn’t so straightforward. Yes, your company will probably spend less on physical office space, but those savings are likely to be spent elsewhere, depending on the remote work that needs to be done.
For instance, your travel budget may increase if remote workers in other states need to travel to the main office once a quarter or more. Or, you may need to invest in new or upgraded software or additional hardware, such as headsets, to properly outfit remote employees.
Remote workers can be just as productive, if not more so, than in-office employees. You just have to set them up for success.
Virtual work definitely adds complexity to the leadership function, but managing remote teams really isn’t all that different from managing onsite teams. Regardless of location, all managers share the same basic challenges in leading people.
One such challenge that any manager will encounter at some point is engaging in difficult conversations with employees. These types of conversations typically focus on:
- Negative feedback about job performance
- Negative feedback about a specific behavior
- Disciplinary issues
- Demotions or involuntary reassignment of roles and responsibilities
Without a doubt, engaging in difficult conversations with employees can be uncomfortable in any setting. But in an environment in which a manager and subordinate may rarely, if ever, interact in person, both parties are vulnerable to misunderstandings. Successfully navigating these difficult conversations virtually requires a higher level of emotional intelligence and more intention.
Here are some tips to overcome one of the toughest aspects of leading remote teams: engaging in difficult conversations.
- Establish trust. You and your employees should be able to be open and transparent with each other. Your employees should view you as a coach – someone who wants to help them succeed – not as an adversary.
- Spend time getting to know your team members. Learn their personalities, working styles and communication preferences. Engage in remote team-building activities or virtual social gatherings to build rapport and understand who your employees are on a deeper level. Find out how you can adapt your management style to best support each individual employee.
- Set personal expectations. Talk with your employees about their roles and responsibilities, processes for carrying out their work, expected quality of their output, work hours and availability for meetings. Don’t assume that you’ve been clear in outlining your expectations – be thorough and ask your employees if there’s any confusion to clear up. This is one of the most common mistakes that managers of either remote or on-site teams make.
- Review the company’s remote work policy. This policy should cover the company-wide requirements and expectations for working remotely – for example, the technologies that should be used, IT and cybersecurity standards, optimal working conditions, productivity standards, and rules and procedures to protect sensitive information.
You can demonstrate trust in your team by managing outcomes versus people. In other words, don’t fixate on how many hours employees are online each day or how often they check in. When employees work from home, there will always be distractions.
Instead, focus on your employees’ output – what they did well and accomplished, or what they missed or didn’t complete. In a remote work environment, you have to trust your people, because you simply can’t police them from afar.
You can also build trust with employees by owning up to your mistakes and identifying opportunities for your improvement. If an employee’s error or oversight resulted from your actions, be honest. You can say something like:
“I want to give you some feedback on a project you recently completed. To be fair, I did not properly set expectations, so let’s clarify those expectations now and see how we can approach the next project.”
Your team members should also know how to reach you if they have questions or concerns. Be accessible when you say you are available.
Find more tips for how to manage remote employees. Download our free magazine, The Insperity guide to leadership and management.