Managing Employees You Can’t See

Walk into any Starbucks or Panera and you will see people working, gazing intently at their laptop screens or talking animatedly on a conference call that no one else can hear. Working remotely–sometimes called telecommuting, teleworking, or working from home–has become enormously popular, and with good reason. It saves organizations the expense of pricey real estate and operating overhead, and it allows employees to work more flexibly, without long hours of commuting.

These advantages are significant enough that a Gallup poll in 2015 reported that 37% of American workers have worked from home. As with any workforce model, however, there are potential downsides that require careful attention from leaders who hire and manage these employees. These include compromised productivity, misuse of company resources like cars and computers and decreased employee engagement as a result of isolation. Professional development can also be difficult for a remote worker, who may not have robust networking and educational opportunities. If you lead a team of remote or partially remote staff, here are some suggestions for making your team productive, motivated and engaged.

Hire Wisely. If you are lucky enough to hire your own staff, focus on candidates who take pride in their initiative, problem-solving and ability to work effectively with minimal supervision. These are the qualities that define a successful remote employee. Candidates who need a lot of hand-holding or repeat explanations may not thrive in a remote environment.

Be Available. Leading a remote team requires a (virtual) open door from the beginning to the end of the work day. Tools like email and instant messaging allow you and your staff to communicate in real-time from your computers. Texting and phone calls allow you to stay connected even when you’re away from your desk or the wi-fi is down. Paradoxically, once your staff can trust you to be available when they need you, you are likely to hear less from them as they use that confidence to solve their own problems.

Talk out loud. It is more efficient, more fun and more effective to have a 15-minute team huddle every morning on the phone than to chase each member of your team individually, or try to get the whole day’s agenda into an email. Many organization’s networks now support video conferencing–some teams love this as it makes them feel more present and interactive, others can’t stand it. Either way, it’s a useful option. Platforms like WebEx make it possible to share documents and other screen content for your team and for them to interact by adding comments or asking questions. It’s easy to feel detached from your staff when you rarely see each other; a daily touchpoint is the simplest way to make sure everyone gets a chance to hear and be heard by the people they work most closely with.

Manage lightly. People want to work remotely because it allows them to integrate their personal and their professional lives. Whether you–the leader–work at home or in an office, remember how important this integration is to your staff. Team members who are highly productive, deliver high-quality work and are fully engaged should not feel that you are counting their keystrokes or monitoring to see how often they get up from their keyboard. As permitted by your organization’s policies and procedures, encourage your team to enjoy the advantages of working remotely while taking full ownership of their performance. Remote leadership is all about the quality and timeliness of the work, not micro-managing the worker. The time to focus on intensive staff monitoring is when spot checks reveal a problem.

Managing a successful remote team requires strong communication skills, clear vision, creativity, and flexibility. Using the tips above will allow you to model the behaviors you want to encourage, while bringing out the best in your staff.

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