If you read the comments section on articles about working remotely, someone inevitably asks, “How do I know if my remote employees are working?” The concern is that employees will loaf without a manager to watch them. I’ve managed remote teams as small as 20 and as large as 100, spread across California. Most of my people did their jobs and did them well. Identifying the shirkers didn’t require fancy monitoring systems. You don’t need them, either. There are cheaper, more effective ways to prove that your remote people are working.
Screen out the loafers. There are people who want to do a good job and fulfill their commitments. But be warned, you will not find these people if you assume everyone is a money-motivated shirker. Check for evidence that your interviewee has completed tasks even if that meant doing things outside her job description. Ask about projects that have gone wrong or changed in scope. How did the person handle the situation? Can she accept fault? Look for people who do good work despite challenges. Look for people you can trust.
A lack of trust can damage any office, but it is particularly poisonous to the remote workforce. I once had a boss we’ll call “Stan.” Stan lived in perpetual fear that his team was loafing instead of working. To “prove” that I was working, I had to answer all of his emails within minutes of receipt or Stan would call me to find out what I was doing. It made me miserable. Worse, it made me inefficient at the job I loved. I explained the effect Stan was having on my ability to do my work, and his answer was to send me a $10 gift card to a local coffee shop. Otherwise his behavior remained unchanged. So then I was miserable AND offended that he thought he could buy me so cheaply. Stan didn’t understand what motivated his team. Stan didn’t last long.
You might think you don’t have time to figure out someone’s motivation. In reality, the time you spend on this task up front will save you from performance problems in the future. Remote employees have a degree of autonomy that in-office employees do not share. Any of them could shirk. Hire people who don’t want to. No amount of surveillance can take the place of hiring trustworthy people.
Hiring the right remote workers is a necessary first step if you want people who work, but it isn’t the only one.
Not everyone thrives in the remote workforce. When Kaplan Test Prep transitioned from a brick and mortar business to one where 90 percent of full-time employees worked remotely, some employees left. For some, home held too many distractions. Others couldn’t turn the work off, and they burned out. Whether you are hiring someone new or assessing members of an existing team, weed out those who can’t succeed in the remote environment.
The employees that thrive have some commonalities.
This isn’t an exhaustive list of qualities that make a great remote worker, but you will be hard pressed to find a successful candidate who lacks any of them. In a perfect world, managers would weed out unsuccessful candidates before they get hired. In reality, this doesn’t always happen. I
If your direct report truly lacks the discipline, communication skills or initiative to work in this way, then it is better to identify that as early as possible. Use the time you would have spent cleaning up performance problems to help your employee find a different role.
While micromanaging can smother a direct report, a completely hands-off approach can also damage efficiency. Some solutions require more authority than others. Depending on the company, decisions to spend money, to change a deadline, or to redirect the course of a project fall to you. A standing meeting is an efficient way to plow through these items. Experiment with meeting cadence to find what works best. I’ve found that monthly meetings worked well for my part-time staff. All other business happened through email and one-off calls. My director and I meet once a week for 15–30 minutes, and the entire team meets for an hour every other week.
These meetings keep everyone on track. They are also great opportunities to update everyone on wider company news.
It’s important to note the difference between regular check-in meetings and the check-ins that Stan the micromanager arranged. Stan did the remote equivalent of jumping out of the bushes and yelling ‘Gotcha!’ In contrast, holding a regular, scheduled check-in to clear away obstacles helps your report do her best work. Your employees will notice the difference.
Once you’ve scheduled regular check-ins, focus on outcomes. This is what you are measured against anyway — the volume and quality of work your people produce. It doesn’t matter if your remote employee answers all of your text messages within five minutes. He could do so from a bar. Or from the beach. There is nothing wrong with working from a bar or the beach (or a bar on the beach) if the employee is actually working (and not intoxicated). Does the employee meet his deadlines? Is he delivering quality work? Is he on time to scheduled meetings? If colleagues and clients know when and how to reach him, then it shouldn’t matter if he works from 8-10 p.m. on Monday so he can take two hours on Tuesday to go to a doctor’s appointment. Employees work harder when they have flexibility. It’s a perk they wish to keep.
By Teresa Douglas (MBA ’14), author of the book “Secrets of the Remote Workforce: By Employees, For Employees”