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Getting the Most Out of Remote Workers
Business Journal

Getting the Most Out of Remote Workers

Even as telecommuting becomes much more common, it's still uncharted territory for most companies. Here's how to manage employees you rarely see.

by Jennifer Robison

One of the toughest parts of a manager's job is the hardest to measure, because it involves the unquantifiable human connection between supervisors and the supervised. For many managers that connection is either exhausting or exhilarating, because it should be constantly renewed.

QUOTE: We've found that managing teleworkers often takes more time and effort.

So you might think that managing remote workers -- work-at-home employees, satellite office staff, traveling salespeople, even truck drivers -- would make a manager's lot easier. Remote workers are never around, so they don't expect much of your time, and you rarely hear from them. The daily human connection isn't missed, because no one expected to have one in the first place. It's managing made simple!

Not quite. "We've found that managing teleworkers often takes more time and effort," says Tom Lowery, group vice president of talent management at the information technology advisory firm Gartner, Inc. "The inability to read body language, have spontaneous chats over a cubicle wall, or maintain any of the other methods of human contact means a manager has to make more of an effort to approximate human interaction. That takes a lot of planning."

It also takes a highly talented manager. Many supervisors of remote workers have learned that what may be best-practice management in an office environment isn't as effective at a distance. To get the most out of remote workers while maintaining and sustaining their engagement with the company, managers must develop new methods and approaches. Managers who want to maintain effective relationships with their remote workers should keep these foundational issues top of mind all of the time: expectations, communication, accountability, and engagement.

Setting clear expectations

One of the biggest challenges managers of remote workers face is unclear expectations. Managers often worry that an employee's work will suffer without their supervision or direction, while employees may feel uneasy with a lack of direction or communication, suspecting that they're missing out on valuable information or feedback. These feelings of unease can be prompted by unclear expectations, and it is a clear understanding of "what's expected" that is at the core of any work relationship. (See "The First Element of Great Managing" in the "See Also" area on this page.) According to a Gallup study, remote workers are significantly less likely than in-house workers to say they know what's expected of them.

But setting expectations is tricky. Sending an occasional e-mail with a list of tasks is not enough; as every seasoned manager knows, the best way to negotiate expectations is face to face and as often as possible. For remote workers and their managers, though, distance and time constraints may limit opportunities to meet, so managers need to find the right strategy for each worker they supervise. Supervisors should use any method available -- phone calls, e-mail, video conferences -- but the approach should be tailored to each worker.

Chris Stewart managed remote workers for many years when he was Gallup's regional managing partner for Asia. His employees met as a team via video conference, but that's not how he set expectations with individual workers.

Stewart kept current on remote workers' client and prospect meetings and checked in regularly before and after those meetings by phone, e-mail, and text message. The interactions were short, but they helped remote workers feel coached, cared for, and certain of expectations.

"Our working relationship was developed in-person at least once a quarter, then maintained with frequent phone, e-mail and text message communications," says Stewart, who is now Gallup's global brand manager. And that's the point -- the expectations themselves were far more important than the delivery method. The key is for managers to find the method that works best for his or her employees.

Furthermore, clarity is crucial. Managers must keep expectations clear and to the point. Nuances and hints just don't come across electronically and can leave workers feeling confused and maybe a little bit threatened. So managers must set straightforward, clear expectations, then ensure that workers understand them.

Managers should also tailor the number of expectations each employee must meet. Some workers can happily and successfully juggle a long list of priorities, but others work more effectively from a short, specific list.

Communication goes both ways: the feedback loop

Don't underestimate remote workers' perceptions and insights. As they're closer to the action, they often have a different perspective of their territory than managers do. Smart managers exploit that knowledge, though leveraging it takes some effort. One effective tactic is to invite remote workers into a decision-making feedback loop by communicating the rationale behind higher-level decisions, then listening closely to employee feedback about the decision and its effects. When managers explain the "why" behind leadership actions, remote workers feel more connected and contribute more buy-in than if they feel they've just been given marching orders. And if they understand the rationale behind key decisions or strategy, they're also more likely to relate valuable information to higher-ups in the company. (See "James Bond Comes to the Boardroom" in the "See Also" area on this page.)

Mosaic, a faith-based nonprofit organization that provides a variety of support services for people with developmental disabilities, has institutionalized this feedback process. Mosaic has more than 4,800 employees in 50 communities in 15 U.S. states and Great Britain. Very few of them directly report to a central administration office, which could hinder communication.

QUOTE: Clarity is crucial. Managers must keep expectations clear and to the point.

So Mosaic developed the Feedback and Change Team (FACT), which consists of 10 employees from various departments who are charged with disseminating senior leadership decisions and the rationale behind them. Along the way, the team gathers ideas, concerns, and suggestions from the rank-and-file, which they pass back up to senior leadership. The teams have created a highly useful feedback loop that grounds upper-level decisions in operational reality and makes remote workers feel included. "The goal of using the FACT team is to obtain feedback from staff directly affected by changes," says Raul Saldivar, Mosaic's senior vice president of human resources and chief integrity officer. "It improves decision making, obtains additional champions for change, and increases employee engagement."

Accountability and measurement

When it comes to managing remote workers, a major concern is trust and accountability. How can managers know whether employees are doing what they're supposed to be doing if no one is watching them? How can they really know if someone they never see is in front of the computer or in front of the TV watching Judge Judy?

One key is ensuring that after expectations are established, they are met on time, on budget, and at standard. Some remote workers plug in at eight, log off at five, and wear a suit to their home offices. Others take business calls on the golf course. What really matters isn't their methodology, it's their results. That's why standards and metrics are crucial. After managers set clear expectations, they should evaluate work by an objective metric, ideally one developed with input from their workers. The end result will be better results from more engaged employees.

A Gallup study found that workers are much more likely to be engaged with their companies if they're evaluated. Thirty-three percent of workers who have a formal process for measuring performance are engaged, and they miss an average nine workdays a year. In contrast, only 21% of workers who lack a formal process are engaged, and they miss 14 days a year. Of workers who have a formal performance metric, 37% who say the process is fair are engaged and miss just eight workdays a year, as opposed to 10% who say the process is unfair and who are absent 16 days a year.

Salary increases and promotions should be pegged to performance for all workers -- engagement suffers otherwise -- so it's wise to use performance as a guide for promotion or a salary bump for remote workers. Of those workers who say their salary is based on performance reviews, 37% are engaged. Of those who say their manager uses some other standard, only 27% are engaged. For workers who say their promotions are linked to performance reviews, 40% are engaged; those who get promoted for some other reason are much less likely to be engaged (23%).

Engaging remote workers

It seems logical to assume that remote workers might be less engaged than in-house staff. Actually, remote workers are more likely to be engaged than those around the office. Twenty-eight percent of people who work from home, 35% of "road warriors" (people whose jobs require constant travel), and 39% of salesmen are engaged, according to a Gallup study. Only 25% of people who work primarily in an office setting are engaged. Furthermore, 58% of remote workers who are extremely satisfied with their manager are engaged, vs. 6% who are ambivalent or dissatisfied with their manager. So, for a variety of reasons, remote workers are as or more likely to get and stay engaged in their work.

But keeping them that way takes some finesse. Managers must be accessible, and they need to build strong relationships with their remote workers according to their individual preferences. Mass e-mails, PR department brochures, and teleconferences may be standard office fare, but they don't necessarily engage telecommuters. These methods also edge uncomfortably close to "managing by paperwork" -- piling up so many forms, handbooks, and policies that remote workers feel inundated, managers feel they have little else to add, and both groups are kept at an artificial and unnecessary distance from each other and from the top brass. Real management requires one-on-one contact, and engagement depends on real relationships.

So, no matter how difficult, rare, or brief, it's necessary to arrange face-to-face meetings between managers and remotes as often as they need them. Just be sure to get the most out of every minute. Here's how:

  • Make time for non-structured talks.

  • Expose remote workers to the company's decision makers; it opens remote workers to career opportunities and provides executives with options they might not otherwise have considered.

  • Show remote workers the impact of their work, (and when possible, build it into performance evaluations), making it clear they shape the company even in absentia.

  • Discuss remote workers' career aspirations, and draft plans for realizing them. If they've earned an award or a certification, give them recognition for their accomplishments. (See "The Best Ways to Recognize Employees" in the "See Also" area on this page.)

  • Schedule the next face-to-face meeting immediately. This helps remote workers maintain the momentum from the meeting, and it strengthens the manager-employee connection.

All of these steps go a long way to creating a sense of ownership and connection, which otherwise may be a big problem for employees who rarely see the full scope of their impact.

But what happens after the in-person meeting is just as important as what happened during it. Remote workers may head home, basking in the warm glow of comradeship. Communication between remotes and managers picks up, and everyone reads the recap e-mail. Invariably, however, communication slackens. This is not necessarily a bad thing -- smart managers know when they should back off. They understand that they need to be accessible, accountable, and communicative, but they don't need to be Mom.

If the manager and remote worker are clear on expectations, are communicating at a level that meets both their needs, and the employee is productive and engaged, workers should be given freedom to find their own best way to get the work accomplished.

Navigating uncharted territory

Teleworking: The Quiet Revolution, a research report written by Caroline Jones and published by Gartner, found that about 25% of the U.S. working populations works outside the office at least 8 hours a month, and the numbers are growing. A major upheaval -- another terrorist attack, an environmental disaster, or even more dramatic surges in gas prices -- could well send more employees out of the workplace and into the home office.

But every company can find benefits in a remote workforce: the ability to scale a workforce independently of physical facilities or geography and reducing commute times to improve workers' work/life balance and reduce their environmental impact are just two.

Permitting employees to work from home might even help retain valuable workers who are considering quitting or retiring. And the cost savings from reduced real estate and office supplies can be substantial. In his article "Cash for Telecommuting," Robert Moscowitz notes that "In American Express Travel Services, for example, each telecommuting travel sales agent costs the company about $1,300 over three years. This includes the one-time relocation and installation costs for computer and telephone equipment, plus the ongoing telephone line and usage charges. Against this expense, the company saves about $4,400 per year in office space rental. At the end of three years, the company has saved $11,900." (See "Cash for Telecommuting" in the "See Also" area of this page.)

Remote work is still uncharted territory for most organizations, however. "We're at the early stages of this," says Gartner's Lowery. "Most companies haven't matured into highly effective teleworking operations. Young people, creative people, they'll be the leading edge of teleworking. Corporations are very slow, but I suspect that they'll adjust when they have to."

The cost savings alone may be the impetus for that adjustment, and when it comes, managers must be ready. Just remember, the people managers never see need direction just as much as the people who are always underfoot. Plan on it.

Tips for Managing Remote Workers

  • Don't always give answers -- let remote workers figure things out, with guidance, on their own.

  • Don't let working from home be a prize. Some people do it well, some don't, but no one will pass up the opportunity if it comes as a reward. Instead, let employees work from home if their talents and the task permit it, and if the company will benefit by letting the job go off site.

  • Make e-mail etiquette a policy or a cultural norm. Much of the communication between remote managers and employees is electronic, and poorly or improperly written e-mails can elicit unintended responses -- and have unintended effects.


Jennifer Robison is a Senior Editor at Gallup.

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