Six key principles for managing remote employees

Jenny Douras

Technology and business pressures have led to more and more managers needing to lead teams that work off-site or are constantly in the field. Though a manager may no longer be able to simply walk down the hall to talk to team members, employees' need for management is no less real. In fact, good management is even more important in remote environments than in traditional cubicles, conference rooms, and break rooms.

A distributed workforce requires different management techniques and skills to keep them motivated, productive, on track, and trained. Although many management techniques and skills parallel those used in managing a centrally based workforce, managers need to apply an additional six key techniques to be successful in the remote environment.

1. Communicating betterOften managers assume they will have less communication with their employees when they are remote; in fact, the reverse is true. Managers of a distributed workforce need more communication with these employees. Employees who work off-site can feel isolated, and can have trouble adopting company standards and procedures. They can have higher turnover, and even develop into "lone wolves", who are unwilling to work in teams.

Increased communication counteracts this tendency and helps each employee cohere with the rest of the company. Whether it comes by email, text message, phone, fax, or a tin can and string, communication is essential. Remote managers need to make sure they are accessible to their employees by multiple avenues.

2. Establishing respectMany remote managers make the mistake of trying to establish their credibility through demands, forcing a type of "because I said so" approach. These managers fear their employees aren't on the job, and this translates into overbearing micromanaging.

But when managers have the employees' respect and respect their employees in return, everyone benefits. Respect is created when managers give reasons and explanations for their actions and show that they value the perspectives of the employees. This doesn't mean a manager needs to evoke consensus, but working to make sure everyone is on board or understands the reasoning behind a change will save time in the long run.

Remote managers need to make sure they are accessible to their employees by multiple avenues.


3. Building a team cultureEmployees in a distributed workforce might not even have a desk in the main office, so it is no surprise that they may have trouble feeling like a part of a company or a team. Ironically, feeling included is highly important to the success of company initiatives and overall motivation and morale.

Remote managers need to consciously focus on building a team community and culture for their employees. Managers can do this by fostering intra-team communication, creating partnerships among remote employees for projects, and by forming virtual water coolers and opportunities for small talk, re-living past successes, humour, and experiences.

4. Creating accountability through self-monitoringThe greatest conundrum for most remote managers is how to ensure that, without micromanaging, the job gets done. Many managers can overcompensate for the inherent disconnect of the remote environment by trying to control every aspect of their employee's day. This is counterproductive because it trains employees to be dependent on ever-present management, when a remote employee actually needs the exact opposite skill. Remote employees need to be able to work independently, and managers need to train them to this end.

The key to growing employees to work effectively in a remote environment is to help them be self-motivated by providing clearly outlined goals, making them responsible for results, and generating individual accountability plans with a self-monitoring system.

Remote managers need to consciously focus on building a team community and culture for their employees.


 5. TrainingThe speed at which a remote employee develops is more important than that of a traditional employee because cost of development is so much higher. Underperforming employees and mis-hires can slip under the radar much more easily, and this can be very expensive.

Onboarding needs to be thorough and tuned to the employee's position. Initial training should be conducted with face-to-face mentoring either by the manager or team peers to ensure the employee can work independently as soon as possible.

For all remote employees, on-going mentoring and training is critical to keep them connected to the company, goals, and team. It also creates an opportunity to identify performance issues before they escalate too far. Managers of field teams should think of each employee's development as a continuous process and use training as an opportunity for building relationships and evaluating performance.

6. Disciplining and resolving conflictsResolving conflict between remote team members can be more difficult and take longer because there is less opportunity to build relationships and find common ground. Avoiding good, productive conflict is also very tempting for remote teams that don't have to interact daily.

Managers need to address conflicts quickly before problems grow and cause dissention within the team. It is important to address performance issues with individual employees as soon as possible. Some remote managers try to ignore these issues until a more convenient time (out of sight, out of mind), but this can be devastating to a team's morale.

The remote employee management environment doesn't need to spell painful transitions for employees and corporations. By appreciating the difference in managing remote employees and implementing these unique skills, companies can meet the challenges and be successful.

Reprinted with the permission of Jenny Douras, Director of Training at Mission Critical Systems. She has managed and trained remote teams for over 20 years. For more information on remote employee management, visit  http://www.mcstech.net/professional-development/management/managing-remote-employees.cfm; 303 383-1627.


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