How Do I Manage Remote Workers? Ben & Jerry's, Slate, and Big Brother
How Do I Manage Remote Workers? Ben & Jerry's, Slate, and Big Brother

This week’s topic is an offshoot of the automation/tech theme, and it’s on the minds of employers across all industries: remote work. With a decent WiFi connection and laptop, many employees can now work from almost anywhere: home, a coworking space, Cabo San Lucas, you name it.

But in my conversations with managers, I’ve noticed the topic of remote work brings a lot of angst. Many managers fear that their employees’ production will plummet or that they won’t really be working. You know the fear: The company payroll racks up billable hours while work-from-homers binge on Friends and Ben and Jerry’s in their pajamas.

I faced the same stereotypes when I first started working from home back in 2002. Everyone seemed to assume I was perusing back issues of People and perfecting my yoga poses just because I wasn’t in an office. The reality, as many work-from-home professionals know, is that I often worked more than when I had been in a traditional office because I no longer had a commute or any physical way to “leave work.”

The lazy, distracted remote worker is an inaccurate stereotype. Many companies have found great success—and increased productivity—from allowing employees to work from home. Here are 40 such companies.

Positive results from remote working can include:

  • Higher job satisfaction reported by employees
  • Lower office space costs for employers
  • Better work/life integration, especially for employees who are caregivers 
  • Cleaner environment from less commuter driving

That said, every remote work arrangement needs guidelines. Here are three tips for employers to best manage your remote workers. 

Remember that remote work is not an all-or-nothing scenario

Just because you offer remote work opportunities doesn’t mean your employees should never come into the office. In fact, most employees don’t want this. Many people enjoy working face-to-face with team members and like the energy of a busy work environment.

What most people want is flexibility.

I encourage you to think creatively about whether it is possible to offer some degree of flexibility – even five percent of a person’s job – to keep with the times and allow people some wiggle room. Even a call center employee, distribution center worker, or driver might spend a few hours a month writing up reports, which could be done from home.

Set clear guidelines for remote work

It is totally appropriate to set guardrails and expectations around remote work, whether at the organizational level or among members of an individual team. This can help remove uncertainty, resentment, and confusion on all sides. Here are a variety of guidelines I have observed organizations implement:

  • Have a shared calendar on which workers indicate when they will be working remotely so people know where to find one another.
  • Whenever anyone on a team is working remotely, have all meetings by phone or teleconference to ensure a level playing field and no “sidebar” conversations that remote workers miss out on.
  • Determine core days or core hours during which all members of the team agree to be on-site for in-person meetings and socializing.
  • Set clear expectations for professionalism and work hours. For example, no pet sounds in the background on conference calls, no taking calls at the grocery store or other non-quiet environments, and professional backgrounds for teleconference calls taken remotely. (No one wants to be that guy from CNN.)

Avoid isolating remote workers

I know some leaders are very uncomfortable with remote work, often because it wasn’t an option for most of their careers. This can lead to Big Brother levels of surveillance, like the manager I know who always calls his remote employees at 9:01am to make sure they are working. 

Ideally, you’ll want to work in person for at least a little while before a worker goes entirely remote. If that’s not possible, then do your best to bring employees together in person at least once a year. While you can absolutely have a successful working relationship with someone you’ve never met in person (I have been working with my phenomenal assistant Eileen for five years and we have yet to meet face-to-face!), a relationship often deepens over shared in-person experiences (we have vowed 2020 will be the year we finally breathe the same air).

The good news is that the rise in remote working has seen a rise in helpful team management technology that can help connect teams across different locations and replicate some elements of in-person experiences. These apps, for example, allow you to keep healthy tabs on employee availability and productivity, and build collegial relationships even when you don’t see people in person every day. 

  • Slack – keeps team communication organized without crowding inboxes, and allows for some watercooler-style human connection and humor.
  • Skype/Zoom/FaceTime – talk face-to-face and share screens from anywhere.
  • Phone Calls – sometimes I think we forget the phone still exists, but nothing beats an old-fashioned personal call to work through a tough issue or just catch up and shoot the breeze.

Beyond practical remote work solutions, the key takeaway here is trust. Trust your employees to do their jobs. Trust them to be honest about their work preferences. And trust them to let you know when remote work isn’t working out. When you put your attention more on relationships and less on location, you’re bound to find the right solutions for your unique situation.

Do you work remotely? Do you manage remote workers? I’d love to hear about your experiences and strategies!