A tried-and-true guide to managing remote employees

Managing remote employees requires a mental leap for traditionally minded managers, who tend to judge productivity based on workers’ “desk time” and activity levels.

Instead, remote work requires that managers focus on what gets done and whether it meets well-defined quality standards. It’s a strange combination of letting go and holding employees accountable.

Unfortunately, there’s no one-size-fits-all formula for making sure remote employees remain productive and efficient. Luckily, some basic tips can help you get the most from your remote workforce.

1. Set productivity standards

Some productivity standards will vary with the job; others may be standard across the company.

A company-wide policy may be that all customer emails get answered by the end of the day, or that everyone is available for meetings and calls from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Individual standards must be analyzed and documented, however informally. For example, you and your 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.

While some managers may see documentation of productivity standards as extra effort, it may help you spot trends that need to be addressed. For instance, after 90 days of tracking a call center employee’s work, you may discover the need to extend customer service hours or identify a bottleneck that impacts productivity.

2. Identify and provide the right tools

Remote employees need the same access to spreadsheets, policies, templates, stationery, mail supplies, software and security measures that onsite employees have.

Whether these tools are provided through a shared drive accessed by a secure VPN, or via Dropbox folders, should be determined by your company’s needs and security standards.

It may be necessary to discuss whether remote employees are provided company laptops or can use their personal laptops. You may also need to verify bandwidth and the reliability of internet connections, and whether the person works from home or from a co-working space.

The key is to make all tools easily accessible when they’re needed. Keep in mind that someone may be trained on a protocol six months before it’s actually implemented from home. You want your employees to be able to refresh their memory on that protocol and accomplish their work as easily as possible.

Depending on the work, you may also need to equip employees with a company credit card or set up an account at a local copy shop or mail services center, all with clearly communicated spending limits.

Keep in mind: 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.

3. Set aside specific days, times and methods for team interaction

When everyone on a team works in an office, they naturally cross paths and overhear conversations. This casual interaction means that people get to know one another personally, can easily share ideas and offer help when a teammate is overwhelmed.

This camaraderie is vital to team cohesion and job satisfaction. Since they’re not running into their coworkers in the break room, remote workers need to make an extra effort to recreate such communication, and managers should look for opportunities to include them in team activities and discussions 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 on the job and the tasks they must accomplish. Email, instant messages and phone or video calls can all be deployed to ask questions, offer help and get feedback.

You may institute a set time for group online interaction between 11:30 a.m. and noon, Monday through Friday. At the very least, everyone should share a weekly email that outlines what they’re working on with any upcoming deadlines and concerns.

Also, encourage all employees to keep their calendars up to date so you don’t have to walk around and ask if people are available when a meeting needs to be scheduled.

4. Follow up with remote employees regularly

As with the rest of the advice here, there’s no one-size-fits-all for how often a manager should call remote workers.

This isn’t necessarily a call to monitor productivity. This call should focus on identifying bottlenecks that the manager can help eliminate, and whether the remote worker is getting what they need from coworkers and clients.

The main purpose of the call is to help the remote worker feel connected to the company and their team. Depending on the person and the job, Amanda may need a call once a week while Matthew may require daily calls.

5. Create a video or tip sheet with other remote employees’ suggestions

Fellow employees who have traveled the remote road before will know exactly what software is most helpful for maintaining productivity.

They’ll know whether it’s necessary to have dedicated desk space in the home with a full desktop setup or whether a small filing cabinet to house supplies and a laptop is enough.

Ask your in-house experts to share their tips on what keeps them organized and efficient, and you’ll get ideas specific to your company’s tools and culture.

6. Remember, remote does not mean cheaper

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 is not 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, 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.

This article is contributed by New Tech Northwest’s HR and Healthcare partner Insperity. They offer Fortune 500 level coverage for SMBs with 4-150 employees. Contact Noel.Nishi@insperity.com to learn more about their assessment that saves companies an average of 8%-12% on their healthcare and HR costs while increasing benefits for employees.

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