The key to managing remote employees is clear and frequent communication. Employees working together in an office reap the benefits of regular, in-person interactions that reveal a lot about how the workplace or team is functioning. When employees work remotely, these informal touchstones are gone. To compensate, managers of remote employees must engage their teams regularly to understand what is working and, more importantly, what is not.
Managers with remote teams should consider some guidelines, including the following:
- Set and Communicate Clear Expectations/Goals: Clear communication of goals is especially important in remote work environments because employees will not be able to gauge their performance against coworkers as easily. Managers must clearly define their expectations and communicate this to the employees they manage. Now, when many remote employees are trying to balance the obligations of home and a lack of available childcare, try to focus on specific goals (g., 10 reports/week) as opposed to activity levels (e.g., 8 hours/day) when possible. However, if a specific activity level is a requirement of the position (e.g., logged in from 9:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m. to respond to customer inquiries), that needs to be communicated to employees.
- Ensure Employees Have the Tools They Need to Succeed: Once goals are set, it is incumbent on managers to ensure their teams have the tools they need to succeed. Technological failures are one of the biggest impediments to remote work success. Managers must ensure their employees are able to access programs and files they need, participate in conferences calls, and so on.
- Frequent and Clear Feedback: This is the key to managing remote employees. Managers must devote time to check-in with their employees and touch base regarding how the work is going and whether the employee has the tools they need to succeed. Many companies with workforces that are completely remote require managers to schedule one-on-one meetings with their team members every week to check in regarding work performance. In a non-remote environment, these weekly meetings might be reserved for underperforming employees, but in a remote environment, they provide an important opportunity for managers to touch base with everyone on the team before problems arise. For employees who are struggling, however, these routine check-ins are critical. The best one-on-one meetings occur by videoconference. Managing employees by written communication is an uphill battle because tone and delivery (especially to underperforming employees) is important. If performance goals or deficiencies are discussed during a videoconference, the content of the conversation should be documented in writing by the manager. Employers should also be mindful that recorded meetings between managers and their employees are likely discoverable in future litigation.
- Written Communication Skills: When a manager cannot see the employees and their reactions or facial expressions, communication can be easily misinterpreted. Managers who have trouble communicating clearly in writing may improve with some training. Writing should be specific, succinct, organized, and highlight deadlines, if appropriate. Bullet points are a great way to organize. Finally, tone matters. Hard conversations should always be had by videoconference before memorializing them in a written communication. For example, a remote employee should not learn by email that they are being placed on a performance improvement plan.