Business Pros Share Best Practices for Managing Remote Employees
It’s no secret that COVID-related adaptations have led to a massive increase in remote work. In 2017-2018, around 29 percent of the US workforce had the option to work remotely.1 Now, with social distancing and safety measures complicating the traditional office setup, many are being thrust into working arrangements that were once optional.
Whether you love or hate the idea of working remotely, there are some important considerations and behavioral shifts you’ll want to take into account to make this experience work well. After all, how do you keep employees motivated and on task when their three year old is running through the background of your video call? How do you balance the oversight of work while being respectful of everyone’s time?
While not every remote work-related question or concern will have a simple answer, there’s still a lot to be learned from professionals who’ve spent considerable time in remote work environments. To help you get a better grasp on how to navigate the unique circumstances that come with remote work, we’ve asked professionals from a variety of fields to weigh-in with what they’ve learned along the way.
7 Tips to consider when managing remote employees
Remote work can be a huge adjustment for everyone involved. Make that change as smooth as possible by taking the following into consideration.
1. Know that online communication can get lost in translation
Communication is nuanced—and not every method of staying in touch while working remotely captures it all. While video calls can certainly do a good job of capturing a lot of the nuance found in body language and tone, they can also be more disruptive than necessary when a simple chat message, email or phone call could still suffice.
“You lose the aspect of body language and emotive communication when communicating online,” says Amit Gami, founder of Business Waste Guru. “For this reason, I’ve encouraged employees to make sure they pay attention to the clarity of their online voice. We try to minimize video calls and make use of internal communication platforms like Slack® so that questions can be asked and answered without much delay.”
Choose your communication methods wisely and be conscious of how your written communication could potentially be misinterpreted.
2. Consider employees’ personal circumstances
Employee motivations and needs obviously vary from person to person in an office environment. When working remotely, those priorities can shift as the line between their professional lives and home lives blurs.
“Different people might have different needs for support,” says Jagoda Wieczorek, HR manager at ResumeLab. “For instance, a single parent with a young child might face different struggles compared to dual-parent households with high school-aged children. On the other end of the spectrum, some might live alone and need a different kind of support.”
Wieczorek says that these varying circumstances make it essential for first time leaders to spend significant energy learning what each employee on the team needs to thrive. Take the time to get a feel for what employees like or dislike about their remote work arrangement, and work with them where possible to ease those concerns.
3. Lead by example
The transition to a remote workplace can create stress for employees and managers alike. Feeling a sense of comradery and a shared work ethic can help keep remote workers on task and motivated.
“It’s important that leadership is approachable and rolls up their sleeves to work hard alongside the team,” says Deborah Sweeney, CEO of MyCorporation. “Make sure your team members are able to connect with you through a variety of different avenues including phone calls, email, and video. Communicate often, especially if there are any issues that need to be addressed—do not wait.”
This doesn’t mean be a busybody who is constantly checking in, but understand that leadership needs to be attentive and set the standard for how employees conduct themselves.
4. Keep a close eye on performance issues
With remote employees, you lose the ability to just stop by their desk for a quick chat where you can easily gauge how things are going. Set aside time to check in, and try not to let smaller concerns sit on the backburner until they boil over.
“If you’re not getting regular, systemic updates you may not notice a drop in performance until it is a major problem,” says Wayne Turmel, co-founder of the Remote Leadership Institute. “If you feel something’s up, find out and do not ignore it. Ask open ended questions and check in.”
Turmel says managers need to be proactive in identifying performance roadblocks and then willing to assist employees as they overcome them. For those who continue to struggle in this format, you may need to adjust your approach with additional check-ins, additional assistance or offers of encouragement. While it can help to provide some leeway and additional attention to those who are struggling, that doesn’t mean standards for remote workers go out the window.
“Of course, the consequences of non-performance need to be fair and clear.”
5. Help your employees create a home workspace
As a manager of a traditional workplace, you know that all your employees have clean, functional, and productive workspaces. Of course, there isn’t always that same ideal workspace for remote employers. Many of the managers we spoke with discussed how they provided a budget for employees to create an equally desirable remote workspace.
“We made sure all employees had the tools they needed to create a productive workspace in their homes,” says Kent Lewis, founder of Anvil Media.
It’s not just the physical space that needs attention. It might seem trivial, but the minor perks of office work like treats in the breakroom or the occasional free lunch do have an impact on morale. Lewis says his organization has tried to address some of this with gift cards to food delivery services. Small gestures like this can go a surprisingly long way—so don’t overlook it!
6. Trust your employees
You have put together a good team. Accountability and open communication are key, but so is trusting your workers to avoid a sense of micromanagement.
“Excessive meetings and video calls will only distract workflow and take away valuable time from working on important projects,” says Baruch Silvermann, founder of The Smart Investor. “It’s important that you trust your employees to do their jobs and not to be checking in every couple of hours.”
This will take a bit of feeling out, but odds are you have a pretty good idea of who might need additional oversight and who can flourish independently. Give everyone space to work, but follow through and adjust as needed.
7. Provide space for your employees to take a break
In a remote workplace, conversations in the break room or post work happy hours fall by the wayside. While it might seem like that socializing is unproductive, it’s also a factor in what keeps employees happy and coming back to work. People are social animals and many thrive when they feel connected beyond the basic duties of their work. Managers of remote employees should try to foster and encourage these exchanges—whether it’s a set-aside time for a virtual coffee break, a voluntary group exercise break or a time for an end-of-week wind down video conference.
Make a conscious effort to find times during the week where employees can socialize without being fully “on” and focused solely on work. That little bit of slack time can help reenergize employees and make the rest of their time on the clock more productive.
Interested in learning more about leadership?
Managing remote employees can come with some tricky hurdles to overcome. But don’t let the novelty of adapting to a remote workforce obscure the fact that effective managers can get the job done no matter where their employees are seated. If you have an interest in developing your management skills, you’ll need to know where things tend to go wrong. Learn about some common mistakes managers make and how to steer clear of them in our article, “Signs of a Bad Manager: 6 Traits and Tendencies to Avoid.”
1Bureau of Labor Statistics, Spotlight on Statistics: Job Flexibilities and Work Schedules in 2017-18 [accessed July 2020] https://www.bls.gov/spotlight/2020/job-flexibilities-and-work-schedules/home.htm