Managing remote employees: How can business leaders do this successfully? Here’s what to keep in mind should you find yourself heading up a remote team.

Being proficient at managing remote employees requires a mental leap, especially for traditionally minded managers.

At first, business leaders, used to monitoring productivity based upon workers’ “desk time” and visible activity levels, may find a shift to remote work foreign and unwieldy. Employees, too, may feel out of sorts in the beginning, as they adjust to significant shifts in their days.

That’s understandable.

After all, while everyone seems to grasp what telecommuting is, not everyone has experienced it yet. And there are definitely pros and cons to working remotely.

How to lead a remote team

To lead a remote team well, managers may discover they need to loosen their reins a little while finding ways to continue to hold employees accountable.

Without the ability to continuously monitor employees in a shared office space, they may find success by focusing more on what gets done and whether it meets well-defined quality standards. It’s helpful, too, to be willing to experiment a little with technology and how meetings are conducted.

In other words, successful pivots to virtual work – whether planned months in advance or in response to a natural disaster or a global pandemic – require that managers be willing to recalibrate how they lead their people.

They also must become familiar with telecommuting best practices and expect a certain amount of trial and error.

To get you started, below are seven basic tips to help business leaders when it comes to managing remote workers.

1. Understand common teleworking challenges.

Typically, there are three main challenges supervisors and business owners encounter when managing a remote workforce.

1. Lack of face time with coworkers and supervisors

Humans are social creatures, so face-to-face interaction is vital to our daily exchanges. This includes our workplace encounters.

As mentioned earlier, supervisors often rely upon workplace encounters as a means of tracking productivity and dedication. It’s also easier to track moods and address mounting frustrations proactively in shared work spaces.

Meanwhile, people unconsciously scan faces and body postures to “read” reactions to things we say and do. So, employees are conditioned to pick up on cues through routine interactions with managers and coworkers. This is as true for constructive feedback as it is for friendly reassurance.

The absence of in-person communication can be strongly felt by mobile team members – perhaps more so during times of stress or change.

2. Communication breakdowns and bottlenecks

When working remotely, we can’t peek over the cubicle or slip down the hall to see if a colleague or supervisor is around to answer a quick question.

Plus, for all their convenience, digital messages (email, texts) can go unnoticed. And a pileup of unanswered messages can slow progress and frustrate teammates. 

At the same time, subtlety and nuance found in interpersonal interactions can be lost in hasty digital replies between teleworkers. People who are otherwise pleasant and cordial in person may come across as brusque and insensitive in emails.

Managers can help address these issues by modeling effective communication strategies.

3. Surrounding distractions

Whether it’s another coffee shop customer accidentally spilling sugar on a remote worker or a cheerful toddler giving a mighty shout from the living room during a conference call, distractions seem to come with the telecommuting territory.

Assuming such incidents don’t become routine, patience is helpful – especially when remote work is a temporary solution to a short-term event, situation or crisis.

2. Set clear remote work productivity standards.

Some productivity standards will vary with the job; others may be standard across the company.

A company-wide policy may be that all customer emails get answered by the end of the day, or that everyone is available for meetings and calls from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Individual standards must be analyzed and documented, however informally. For example, you and your teleworking team may decide that any developer assigned a project must deliver code ready to be tested in five working days, and if a deadline won’t be met there must be 48 hours’ notice.

Meanwhile, a call center employee may need to resolve 10 client calls an hour while ensuring there are no crying babies in the background. A recruiter may need to conduct 20 phone interviews and fill five positions a month.

While some managers may see documentation of productivity standards as extra effort, it may help you spot trends that need to be addressed.

For instance, after 90 days of tracking a call center employee’s work, you may discover the need to extend customer service hours or identify a bottleneck that impacts productivity.

3. Identify and provide the right tools.

An important aspect of successfully managing remote employees is to make all necessary tools easily accessible as needed. To meet that need, leaders and teams may have to puzzle through what should be put in place to ease a telecommuting transition.

Remote employees need the same access to things utilized by onsite employees, which may include (but are not limited to):

  • Policy and procedure manuals
  • Presentation templates and supplies
  • Mail supplies and stationery
  • Software programs
  • Corporate credit card

Telecommuting technology

Most remote work can be conducted with little more than a computer, internet access, a phone and a headset.

Whether digital tools are provided through a shared drive accessed by a secure VPN, or via Dropbox folders, should be determined by your company’s needs and security standards.

Depending on the work being produced at home, you may want to provide a small printer. Alternatively, you may decide to set up an account at a local copy shop or mail services center, all with clearly communicated spending limits.

Consider carefully whether remote employees are provided company laptops or can use their personal laptops. Cyber security and data safety are important, obviously, when considering hardware, software and where employees may access central servers.

You may also need to verify bandwidth and the reliability of internet connections, and whether the person works from home or from a co-working space

Digital video conferencing providers can be useful to small and large teams alike.

Remember: You and your remote employees may find that some tasks must be conducted in the office for security reasons or because it’s simply more efficient to meet in person. Be ready to accept the limits of remote work for some portions of a job or for individual units within a larger division.

Transitioning teams to remote work

In a perfect world, new teleworkers would train to use relevant remote technology and protocols six months before implementation.

Yet, even if a shift to remote work is anticipated to take place in a matter of weeks (or days), a four- or 24-hour trial run may reveal unanticipated shortcomings to a seemingly workable remote plan.

Depending on your circumstances, you might have the whole team participating or only one or two members.

Practice helps make perfect.

4. Set aside specific days, times and methods for team interaction.

As mentioned earlier, casual workplace interactions foster collegiality and teamwork.

For remote teams, it may take a little extra effort to recreate such communication. And when there is a mix of off-site and on-site employees, wise managers seek opportunities to include everyone in team activities and discussions whenever possible.

It may seem artificial or cumbersome at first, but encourage your remote workers to contact you and other team members regularly – and vice versa. What constitutes “regular contact” depends, of course, on the job and the tasks telecommuting employees must accomplish.

How to foster connections and interaction

Obviously, email, instant messages and phone or video calls are essential for remote interaction.

When possible, it’s helpful for employees to keep their workday calendars up to date on a centralized platform or application. Also useful are “away” notifications on software and out-of-office email replies during normal work hours. These seemingly little things help minimize the risks and frustrations associated with those dreadful communications bottlenecks.

For wholly remote offices, encourage team members to pick up the phone or schedule short video calls to cut down on the back and forth.

To monitor progress and foster collegiality, it’s helpful to establish a set time for group online interactions. Brief daily check-ins or staff meetings help leaders and project managers to assess situations and identify roadblocks.

It may be helpful to revisit how to run a successful meeting. There’s not a huge difference between remote and in-person meetings, but generally it’s helpful to:

  • Have a clear agenda
  • Call roll at the beginning of large meetings so that everyone knows who is present
  • Encourage everyone to mute themselves when they’re not speaking

The agile process, developed within the software community but now applied in several industries, can be useful when managing teleworkers. Many remote teams find the process helps nurture accountability while also helping managers monitor projects.

At the very least, everyone should share a weekly email that outlines what they’re working on, noting any upcoming deadlines and concerns.

5. Follow up with remote employees regularly.

As with the rest of the advice here, there’s no one-size-fits-all for how often a manager should reach out to remote workers.

Yet the most effective one-on-one calls aren’t just about monitoring productivity. They can also be powerful means of keeping remote employees motivated and engaged.

Ideally, regularly scheduled one-on-one calls – whether daily, weekly or biweekly – can help a manager:

  • Determine if the employee is doing well overall.
  • Work with the staff member to identify and eliminate bottlenecks.
  • Discuss plans for the employee’s professional development.
  • Answer a range of questions relevant to the employee.

Depending upon the employee and the nature of their job, more or less routine interaction may be required. For example, Amanda may need a call once a week while Matthew may require daily calls.

As much as is reasonable and schedules permit, supervisors should be adaptable to staff needs and calendars.

6. Create a video or tip sheet with other remote employees’ suggestions.

Staff members (or trusted industry peers) who have traveled the remote road before may have advice to share, including what software is most helpful or what’s required to set up a home office.

These insights can be shared via PDFs, short videos or informal question-and-answer video calls.

Other valuable telecommuting tips may include:

  • How to manage the ebb and flow of ordinary days (and peak periods)
  • Favorite local eateries that deliver
  • Maintaining work-life balance while working remote
  • How to incorporate healthy behaviors
  • Time management ideas
  • Personal strategies for staying on task and organized

7. Remember, remote doesn’t mean cheaper.

Budgets play an important side note when talking about remote workers. Some business leaders may assume that instituting remote work and cutting office space by 50% equals a 50% reduction in the expense of housing employees in a traditional office.

However, the formula isn’t so straightforward. Yes, your company will probably spend less on physical office space, but those savings are likely to be spent elsewhere, depending on the remote work that needs to be done.

For instance, your travel budget may increase if remote workers in other states need to travel to the main office once a quarter or more. Or, you may need to invest in new or upgraded software or additional hardware, such as headsets, to properly outfit remote employees.

Remote workers can be just as productive, if not more so, than in-office employees. You just have to set them up for success.

Find more tips for how to manage remote employees. Download our free magazine, The Insperity guide to leadership and management.