Working Remotely: How to Manage Work-at-Home Employees

This series on “Working Remotely” is inspired by “Remote,” the book by the 37Signals guys, and by my own experience working remotely for many years.

Working RemotelyWe know the benefits of working remotely and what it takes to be a good remote worker. So you’re a good candidate, your employer is on board, and you’re ready to work from home. But how does one manage a worker who’s no longer working a few steps away?

It starts with trust – David and Jason laid it out clearly in Remote:

If you can’t let your employees work from home out of fear they’ll slack off without your supervision, you’re a babysitter, not a manager. Remote work is very likely the least of your problems.

Yeah.

Clearly defined role and goals – In today’s world where one person does the work of many, roles may blur. For remote workers, this can be stressful. It may not happen right away, but as the role evolves work at coming up with a plan of execution and performance metrics.

Have regular check-ins – We do an Agile-like Standup every morning with the team. It lasts for about 15 minutes and is useful for many reasons, including the opportunity to have face time (GoToMeeting or Skype video) and get on schedule. It’s also a great way for management to keep up with your progress and you with theirs. Not every remote worker will need or want a daily group check-in, but a week should not go by without a de-briefing meeting – on the phone. Messages, emails and texts will fly daily, but a conversation to catch up, air concerns, and discuss new projects and processes, is essential at least weekly.

Always be connected – This is on the employee. If you use Google, Skype, or another messaging tool to communicate with headquarters and other remote workers, keep it on during the company’s hours of operation. Even when you’re working from a coffee shop or the library, you need to be accessible if someone needs to get in touch with you. Get the app on your phone and keep it on.

Managers, don’t abuse this communication channel. When workers are in the office, you can see the stream of people stopping by their desk to collaborate on work or if they’re on a break. You can’t see this clearly when they’re working from home. I knew a telecommuter who took her computer on bathroom breaks for fear of missing a message. That’s not trust, and it’s certainly doesn’t make for a confident, productive remote worker.

Make sure employees have access to the right tools – Issue fully loaded laptops, devices and applications. Update them regularly as you would if they were in the office.

Provide opportunities for training and professional development – This is important. Encourage (and pay for) your employees to join a trade association, take classes and go to conferences. An educated, networked employee is a better asset. This is especially important for remote workers who don’t get the opportunity to absorb serendipitous snippets of information around the office – or to experience the networking and camaraderie.

working-remotely

Don’t Micromanage – Few things will make an employee flee or hate their job more than micromanaging. This is especially true for independent (that’s one of the traits, remember?) remote workers. To quote Sir Richard Branson who knows a thing or two about managing workers:

To successfully work with other people, you have to trust each other. A big part of this is trusting people to get their work done wherever they are, without supervision.

Ultimately, telecommuters will have to prove your trust in them is justified. That’s easily measurable: the work they produce.

Have other tips on how to manage remote workers? Please share in the comments below.

POSTS IN THE SERIES:
Working Remotely: The Many Benefits
Traits of an Effective Telecommuter
How to Manage Work-at-Home Employees
A Productive Home Office
Managing Solitude
Communication and collaboration
Managing Distractions
Managing Time, Boundaries, and Balance
Evaluating Employee Performance
Company Culture Beyond the Office Walls
How Lee Rosen Moved His Law Firm to an All-Remote Workforce
Working Remotely: Have Computer, Will Travel

4 Responses to “Working Remotely: How to Manage Work-at-Home Employees”

  1. Shawn

    How about bringing together all remote workers at the physical office a few times a year?

    Reply
    • Tim Baran

      Shawn, that’s ideal – at least once a year. I go down to our headquarters for a week every other month and it really helps with relationship building and more.

      Reply
  2. David Moore

    Tim,
    This can be a struggle for many managers / owners like me. You “fear” they are goofing off, but, at the end of the day, if all assignments are completed in satisfactory manner, it doesn’t matter if it took them 10 minutes or 10 hours. As a manager / owner it’s up to us to give them the appropriate workload. But still…it’s an internal struggle with me.

    Also, as a manager / owner we need to watch out for the bogus “check-in” at 4:55 to “see if they are still working”. I don’t do that, but more often than not, when my wife is working from home her boss will send a late afternoon message. It’s quite obvious what he is doing. My wife generally works until 6:30 each night, so when the “boss is leaving” and sends her a “check-in” message at 4:55 it really pisses her off.

    Reply
    • Tim Baran

      Good points, David. I don’t think a great remote-working relationship happens right away. It takes some trial and error and massaging, and time for both employer and employee to get used to it. And each situation is different, but it’s more important to measure employees productivity instead of their hours in the office – in-house or remote. This concept also takes some getting used to.

      Reply

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