Jim Miller refers to himself as “Dr. Telework” in his columns and national speaking engagements about telecommuting. He also practices what he preaches as a remote manager for Qwest Communications (formerly US West).

He supervises eight people, and all of them telecommute. In this article, Miller and other experts and managers share advice about monitoring a remote staff.

Two ways of tracking productivity that don’t work well
Even though today’s technology allows you to track everything that goes on with a company-owned machine—from Web site visits to keystrokes—it ’s a time-consuming way to check on your telecommuters.

“It’s technologically doable,” said Patrick Callinan, an analyst with Cambridge, MA-based Forrester Research Inc. “But someone’s going to have to read a lot of server notes. If you have to monitor people that closely, you’re not ready to have telecommuters,” he said.

Even so, some type of monitoring may be necessary for management to evaluate the effectiveness of a telecommuting program. How can a manager justify the additional cost of supporting telecommuters without data to demonstrate that these employees are productive?

Another method that some companies use to demonstrate productivity is to survey teleworkers. These efforts have produced statistics that show an average increase in productivity among teleworkers ranging from 3 to 25 percent. But keep in mind those numbers are not objective since they’ve been gathered from user surveys, said Cherry-Rose Anderson, an analyst with Gartner, a leading business technology advisor based in Stamford, CT. (TechRepublic is a subsidiary of Gartner.)

“I take productivity statistics with a grain of salt,” Anderson said. “Certainly enterprises can obtain an increase in productivity by utilizing telecommuting, but most enterprises simply are not set up to measure things empirically.” She said many companies do little more than ask telecommuters simple survey questions, such as, “Do you feel more or less productive when working from home?”

So if electronic surveillance methods are impractical and user surveys are unreliable—how should you determine the productivity of your remote workers?

A level playing field
According to the Midwest Institute for Telecommuting Education in Minneapolis, the most common characteristics associated with determining productivity include:

  • Quality of work
  • Customer satisfaction
  • Ability to meet deadlines
  • Quantity of work completed

“These are elements that are used to evaluate employees’ work, whether they telecommute or not,” said Jane Anderson, executive director of the institute.

And that’s how Miller describes the way he monitors remote workers—he uses the same evaluation guidelines that he’d use for office workers. Miller compares the performance of remote workers with the historical performance of office workers.

First, teleworkers at his company are given an opportunity to understand what’s expected of all workers. At Qwest, potential telecommuters must be “officed” for a minimum of six months to become accustomed to the company’s performance expectations for the enterprise and the work group.

Miller also advised:

  • Establish objective benchmarks of output prior to finalizing the telecommuting assignment
  • Supervise using some of the same communication channels you would with traditional office workers, such as morning calls or e-mails, mid-day checks, and end-of-day discussions of accomplishments

The special needs of remote workers
In a perfect world, remote workers could always be treated just like any other employee. But Kimberly Henderson, a manager at TechRepublic, has learned that remote workers require special attention. Henderson supervises eight employees, including one remote worker. Her entire team must complete projects on tight deadlines everyday—and that intense working environment means a remote worker must respond to e-mail immediately.

“That’s something that I’ve had to work on because 15 minutes on this team is a lifetime,” said Henderson. “Telecommuters have to be accessible via e-mail or on the phone at a moment’s notice.”

Henderson oversees the production of TechMails, a service that sends thousands of daily e-mails to TechRepublic members. Members subscribe to the e-mail service in order to receive information such as user tips, career advice, and management strategy.

Henderson would recommend that any manager who supervises remote workers should determine a realistic time frame for a teleworker to respond to an e-mail or phone call. The teleworker should be aware of this requirement. Other managers may determine that 15 minutes or longer is an appropriate response time when communicating with remote workers via e-mail or phone.

Another recommendation from Henderson—use weekly meetings as a way to track the productivity of all employees.

“I go around the table and ask everyone what they’re working on and what concerns they have. That does a lot for cohesiveness. Having that person in-house helps—(even if it’s) just for the meeting,” said Henderson.

Henderson said the weekly meeting has another benefit—it allows the office employees to keep tabs on the remote worker.

“You do have to let them know that this person is pulling his/her own weight if they don’t come in everyday,” she said.

Henderson described other techniques to maintain the productivity of remote workers:

  • When there are internal network problems, the remote workers use an external account and e-mail work to office workers.
  • Managers should not hesitate to use the telephone to call employees who work from home. Get over the idea that you are invading the employee’s home life.

While the managers and experts we interviewed suggested different methods to track productivity, many agreed that the overall strategy is the same—provide clear instructions about the goals and deadlines that the remote worker must accomplish. When remote workers demonstrate they are meeting objective criteria, both the manager and the employee have reliable information about the employee’s productivity.
If you manage remote workers, tell us how you track productivity. Post a comment below, or send us an e-mail.