Do you rely on work from employees who spend some or all of their time working away from your office? If you're like most business owners or managers, the answer is almost certainly yes. According to Global Workplace Analytics, 63 million Americans will work remotely by 2016--more than a third of the total work force. (I myself have come to depend on a researcher who happens to live in Prague.)

But this big growth of remote work presents big challenges to traditional management styles. Often, these center around face-to-face conversations and observing whether an employee appears to spend a lot of time at his or her desk. How can you make sure remote employees stay on track when you don't see them every day?

The answer is a combination of changing management practices and adopting technology that gives managers insight into employee activities while also giving employees insight into what's going on back at the office, according to Dustin Grosse, COO of ClearSlide, which makes software that automatically tracks how sales reps engage with customers.

Here are Grosse's tips for successfully managing remote workers:

1. Make activity tracking automatic, if you can.

"Many managers rely on self-reported data to measure effectiveness," Grosse says. That's a problem, because it's an outdated system that will feel clunky to employees in an age when people are accustomed to carrying a device on their wrists that tells them what they did all day without their having to think about it.

Even worse, the results are bound to be inaccurate. I've seen this myself on the rare occasions when I've taken on jobs by the hour and tracked my own activities. Between doing quick tasks in between other things on whatever mobile device might be handy and simply starting work without remembering to start the tracker, I found getting an accurate hour count was just about impossible.

The best answer is to find an application that can detect what you're doing and track the time spent on each task automatically. Unfortunately, while there are multitudes of time-tracking apps out there, there are few options for automatically timing general tasks the way ClearSlide times sales tasks. TimeCamp integrates with many popular productivity applications for automated time tracking. And if you use Outlook, there's a little-known feature that can help you track your time automatically within its functions menu.

2. Focus on what, not when.

"Many remote workers create tailored schedules based on when they are the most productive," Grosse says. "Some may rise early and others may work late. Rather than micromanaging when they're getting the work done, focus on what they're consistently achieving."

Not only will you end up with better productivity, but also happier, more engaged employees, Grosse says. "Benchmarking success based on results rather than activity levels builds trust and long-term employee satisfaction."

3. Make sure everyone knows they're part of the team.

"One of the most difficult parts about managing remote workers is simply remembering to loop them in," Grosse says. It's just as important to include remote workers in team meetings and publicly recognize their contributions as it is for on-site employees. Resist the temptation to leave remote workers out of quickly scheduled ad-hoc meetings because it's too much of a bother to let them know--you should have a quick and easy means of communication.

Just as important, when you're handing out assignments, brainstorming, or discussing solutions to problems, remember to include remote employees in the process. Otherwise, they'll become isolated and unable to contribute effectively to team efforts.

4. Establish a time and method for regular check-ins.

Obviously, individualized work schedules, not to mention time-zone differences, if applicable, can make it difficult for other employees to reach remote workers when they need to. The solution, Grosse says, is to work with remote employees and establish some times when they will be consistently available to respond to phone calls, email, or other messages--rather than try to shoehorn them into an established schedule that may not be the best for their work patterns or home situation.

"Weekly one-on-ones are a must for effectively coaching all your staff, but they're especially important for remote workers," Grosse says. "They don't have the same opportunity to pop into your office or have happenstance encounters in the break room to ask a quick question. In addition to a scheduled time to talk, find mutually beneficial ways to check in at other times. That may include chat, text messages, or looking for times that are convenient for a quick talk. For example, when I've managed employees on the East Coast or in other countries, I used my commute time to touch base. Doing this made me more accessible and my remote team members were more engaged as a result."

How often should you check in with each remote worker? The right answer will vary depending on the remote worker's job, personality, experience on the job (or lack thereof), and your company culture. In general, I think it's a better idea to err on the side of check-ins that are too frequent because if they prove unnecessary you can always cut back. Whereas if they don't happen often enough, increasing the frequency may lead to an awkward conversation about why more monitoring is needed.

5. Get to know remote employees as people.

"When working in an office, you learn about your employees and colleagues through daily interactions, from working together on projects to casual conversations about weekend plans," Grosse says. "It takes greater effort to engage in the same way with remote employees, but it's critical."

As with any other employee, for remote workers, engagement with their jobs and your company depends on feeling known and understood. "What drives or depletes their passion and enthusiasm? What are their career aspirations? If you don't invest time in getting to know your remote workers, you'll find it difficult to earn their trust," Grosse warns.

6. Schedule regular face-to-face encounters.

At least once per quarter is a good minimum guide, Grosse says. "In-person interactions with the broader team help build better camaraderie and eliminate mistrust," he adds. So if a remote worker hasn't visited in a while, set up a time for him or her to come to the office, participate in meetings in person, and spend time hanging around with on-site colleagues. And schedule an off-site lunch or dinner meeting for you and your remote employee to talk one-on-one. "That's a great time to focus on career objectives and performance, and ultimately form a stronger bond," Grosse says.

More:

Published on: Jul 8, 2015
Like this column? Sign up to subscribe to email alerts and you'll never miss a post.