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How to manage remote employees

Mar 17, 2020

Managing a remote workforce takes more than tech tools like email, video chatting, videoconferencing and instant messaging.

It takes managers willing to embrace new challenges since traditional management techniques are not enough to keep a remote workforce engaged and productive.

While you shouldn’t treat remote employees differently than in-house teams, there is a significant cultural difference when managing people you rarely see.

Remote workers cite unplugging after work, loneliness, collaboration/communication and staying motivated among their biggest challenges.

Here are a few ways good managers can help overcome those challenges:

Set clear expectations

Have a frank conversation with your remote employees so they know what you expect and what they can expect from you.

Do you want status updates on projects? How and how often? Clarify their role. Do you want them to make decisions independently and inform you after? Or get your approval first?

And when either of you reaches out, what is the expected response time?  Does quickly mean an hour to you or a week? Do you expect them to respond to emails after 6 p.m.? Or on weekends?

If all your employees are working remotely, gather them online as a team and discuss expectations as a group. Who is responsible for what? When does someone else need to be informed? Who weigh in on the decision? Who does not need to be involved?

Not only will clear expectations help ensure a smooth workflow, it also will help establish trust on both sides.

Sometimes there is a fear, if you don’t see an employee working, nothing is getting done. Clear expectations will help keep you from micromanaging and keep remote employees from over-reporting.

Schedule consistent check-ins

There’s no set rule on how often you have to meet, but you need to establish a consistent schedule so you don’t let the day’s deadlines add a virtual distance on top of the physical one.

Whether it’s weekly or monthly, schedule regular check-ins and stick with it. It’s easy for silence to become very loud and misinterpreted by remote employees who cannot get visual cues from you on how they are performing.

You should also consider making this a video meeting. The visual connection will help you better gauge an employee’s understanding of the information you’re trying to impart.

And it ensures both of you are “present” for the call.  Too often we use virtual meetings as a time to catch up on email or complete other tasks. Making eye-to-eye contact will increase both your engagement.

You might also consider scheduling in-person meetings once or twice a year for individual employees and an entire remote team.

Create virtual water cooler moments

It’s easy to establish trust with those you pass in the halls every day. They can pop in your office, grab lunch or strike up a conversation in the breakroom.

Remote employees don’t have that access and can feel distant. To help build those bonds, take the first few minutes of online meetings or call to just chat for a few. Have a normal conversation as you would if you were at work. Or consider synching up before an employee signs off for the weekend.

You can also schedule regular meetings that are optional for connecting and sharing stories.

Making an extra effort to respond to their emails or IMs more quickly and add include some personal conversation can help increase trust.

Providing feedback

Whether positive or negative, it’s important to provide feedback to remote employees, same as you would your in-house team.

Be proactive and specific. Establish clear, objective performance metrics and give them context. Remote employees can be isolated from the big picture goals of your organization or not be able to see how their work dovetails into other teams.  

Don’t get too hung up on monitoring productivity. Focus on the end goal and key results, not the exact number of minutes someone sits at their desk.

And it’s also a good idea to solicit your employees for feedback. Ask if everything is going smoothly. Do they have the clarity they need from you? Do they need more face time? Is their equipment up to par?

Clear feedback — even negative — is an important part of motivating remote employees.

Don’t forget career pathing

It’s more difficult for remote employees to see how their skills fit into the overall needs of an organization — or understand what skills to develop to reach higher levels in your organization.

Managers need to be a strong bridge for isolated remote workers to build connections outside their team.

Find ways to involve them in meetings with project stakeholders. Invite them to pop in to other team meetings for an introduction. Help raise their visibility by praising them on projects to other teams. Or call out their successes on internal communication channels.

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Julia A. Johnson
Director, Organizational Performance
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