Best practices: The top 13 ways to manage remote employees

An idyllic remote work office is possible with excellent communication and established trust between supervisor and staff.

As more companies recognize the value of remote employees, those businesses must adjust managerial styles and navigate how to take what's worked in an office, and translate it into supervising those who work remotely. According to a special analysis of US Census and Bureau of Labor Statistics data by Global Workplace Analytics, the remote and flexible work consulting firm, and FlexJobs, the number of people telecommuting in the U.S. increased 159% between 2005 and 2017 .

To an old-school traditionalist employer, a primary concern for a remote workforce is the ability to supervise effectively. Their "number one concern," said Kyle Ladewig, founder of Out of Office, "is that remote workers won't be as productive as those in the office every day." 
 
However,  in a remote office, "there's less risk of losing productivity due to unexpected (and unpaid) time off," said Charlett Beasley, Workplace and Careers analyst. There are less " missed work days. When companies give their employees space to adapt, they rise to the occasion."
 
Matt Thomas, president of WorkSmart Systems, agreed flexible work arrangements "allow a more variable schedule contrasting the traditional nine to five and provided an increase in employees' productivity and help with retention and recruiting."

SEE: Managing remote workers: A business leader's guide (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

1. Provide employees with the best equipment and tools

"The biggest best practice is to have effective communications technology available and ready," said Michelle Labbe, vice president of people at the all-remote Toptal. "Once you have the right technology in place, communication run[s] smoothly. Between Slack and Zoom, employees can constantly be in touch, for messaging or video calls." 
 
Labbe warned supervisors should be wary of employees who isolate, because "A [successful] remote company is a very collaborative, over-communicative culture and if someone is not, that's a red flag."  
 
Provide your remote employees with tools "to do great work no matter where the person is located," said Lynee Luque, vice president and head of people at Envoy, a workplace technology company. "That includes providing high-quality monitors and headphones, ensuring meetings are setup for participation no matter the person's location," and that those in office have rooms for optimal video-conferencing collaboration, cameras adjusted to capture the whole room, and the best experience for virtual attendees."

SEE: Slack: A cheat sheet (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

2. Have a proven, established system

Luque added "We don't wait for it to become a problem. It's important to constantly check- in with our distributed employees and iterate on our tools, systems, and processes based on feedback. We do this through roundtable discussions, weekly pulse checks, and an engagement survey every six months."
 
Torben Christiansen, director of technology, a global audio specialist at Sennheiser agreed. "Organizations need to ensure employees can seamlessly connect wherever they are, to focus on the work and not equipment. Headsets and portable conference speakerphones play an important role, as well as cloud-based software so employees can access the tools they need anywhere, anytime," Christiansen said.
 

3. Encourage remote employees to connect with each other

Supervisors, Labbe said, should "connect the like interests of employees from both a work and social standpoint," Labbe said. Even though remote , "employees [should] connect with each other on different levels outside of the virtual workplace," and managers should encourage this. Toptal keeps a community events calendar to introduce those who live near each other or have similar interests and encourages get togethers, if not in person, then via Zoom. 
 
Nearly all remote supervisors interviewed agreed communication is imperative. "Effectively managing remote and flex time employees starts with managers and employees on the same page for expectations and goals," said Dania Shaheen, vice president strategy and people operations at Kazoo. 

SEE: How to secure your zoom conference line from hackers (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

4. Foster team building

"Our greatest concern regarding managing remote employees," said Tim Abdu, head of human resources at The Corporate Connoisseur, "continues to be team building and rapport," and added, "we focus heavily on team structure and intra-departmental relationships. The best practice for managing remote employees is communication. Management, and staff need to be in constant communication and discuss expectations and needs. Our most successful staff and managers are the ones who know how to communicate and how to do so effectively."

5. Value employees and set expectations

"To create a better work environment, organizations must ensure all employees are engaged and feel valued by leadership and management," Shaheen said.

Start with over-communication from managers, set clear expectations for remote and flex-time employees for work assignments, how and when work will be completed, and how their role within the team and organization are crucial to ensuring they are engaged in, and enjoy their work."It's important for managers to regularly check-in with remote workers to make sure these expectations are being laid out clearly for employees and to ensure employees are on target to hit their goals," Shaheen said. 

6. Get regular feedback from employees

Shaheen continued, "Employee feedback is one of the most under-utilized tools, yet it can provide business leaders and HR professionals with a wealth of knowledge around what will keep their employees engaged and enable their business to thrive."

SEE: Infographic: How to handle negative feedback (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

7. Establish an online office

" Remote work won't work if you don't have an office online," said Adrienne Cooper, chief people officer FitSmallBusiness.com "Our greatest tool is our online office." Staff can "meet" and chat online. "We primarily use Slack, with Zoom for video conversations and meetings."
 
"You need a system that stores and shares documents so people can work together no matter where they are sitting and no matter the time of day," Cooper said. "Include remote employees in our social activities. People trust each other and work better together when they know each other. Casual socializing really helps people get to know each other on a personal basis. Schedule video lunches and coffees. Encourage our remote employees to shut off all communications during virtual meetings."   

8. Set clear expectations, nix employee-monitoring software

"Generally, the best way to supervise remote employees is through an outcomes-based approach," Teresa Douglas, co-author of Working Remotely: Secrets to Success for Employees on Distributed Teams said. "Set clear expectations, give your employee a reasonable workload, and schedule regular check-ins to see if they need any resources to complete the work. This is how you catch things before they become problems, without the added expense or privacy concerns that surround employee monitoring software ."

9. Be flexible with your flex employees

"The secret to success involves a combination of research, experimentation, and the willingness to pivot," Douglas stressed. "Hiring remote workers gives a business the ability to hire from the world-wide talent pool, instead of being limited to the workers in a given area. With planning and a good communication plan, these workers can drive excellent results, to the benefit of a company's bottom line."

SEE: Avoid time-wasting meetings: 10 tips (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

10. Managers should be "people-people"

"The best managers in this situation are people managers," Abdu said. "These are the managers who have equal parts empathy [and] knowledge in their subject matter.  People managers are able to communicate effectively and understand the needs of all of their employees."
 
Avoid conventional "supervision," and instead focus on completed work. "We tend to discourage supervision, per-se, rather we like to see projects and tasks fulfilled on-time," Abdu said. "We expect the remote employee to join meetings on-time and to be an active participant and we like to see all our staff active and engaged on Slack assisting their fellow colleagues."

11. Schedule online check-ins

In addition to staying in touch, there are other ways companies supervise their remote employees. "We have weekly calls, monthly meetings and are all connected via Slack on a daily basis," said Suburban Jungle founder and president Alison Bernstein, whose staff is completely remote. "Slack allows us to keep an ongoing conversation--whether it be about our latest blog post or press hit, to share our accomplishments, congratulate each other and more. Our monthly breakfast in-person team meetings serve as a sensational way to brainstorm, reconnect and all come together to powwow."

12. Establish a remote on-boarding system

For other companies, an established program is in place for right after the hire of a new remote employee. "Successfully managing remote and flex employees starts with effective on-boarding, which typically hinges on extending your organization's culture beyond the four walls and through a screen," said Gayle Wiley, chief people officer, Lifesize (a video-conferencing solution company). 
 
Wiley recommends "ditching email almost entirely in the first few weeks and get video involved from the start to spend as much face-to-face time as possible," arrange meetings with key stakeholders via video to promote a sense of self-sufficiency and ensure the employee feels connected to the broader community." 
 
At Lifesize, a "New Hire Buddy Program," pairs an established employee with a new one. Volunteer "buddies" connect frequently early on, then less frequently over time. "These relationships go a long way towards answering organizational questions, along with serving as a liaison to others in the organization."
 
Clarify guidelines and ensure flexible work arrangements are grounded in your corporate values, Wiley said. "For example, when working remotely, are your employees 'Leading with Integrity,' as in 'doing the right thing' when no one else is watching. Foundational values help establish the expectations regarding appropriate work behaviors along with how work gets done."

13. Never micromanage and be results-oriented

Focus on the quality and timeliness of a remote employee's work.

As for remote office culture, "In general, it's best to take a relaxed managerial style, especially if the employee is completing their work on time," said Calloway Cook, president of Illuminate Labs. 
 
Also, "Hire people with a high level of discipline and a high internal motivation and a propensity to be driven for results," said Business Coach's Stacy Caprio. 

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We look at how to manage a remote staff.

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