Remote management and monitoring is a skill that is becoming more crucial than ever for a profitable business. Coronavirus has made it so.
I spent nearly one third of my 40-year career being managed by a remote boss or managing employees remotely. It taught me some practical, real-life lessons in how to do it effectively.
Remote Management isn’t Just Working at Home
Remote management usually takes place in two forms: an employee who works from home or an employee who works alone in another office.
Many situations involve an employee who works from home, especially because of distance, illness or having enough power to make it happen. For example, I knew of a division president who was so loved by his company that he was allowed to split his time between the corporate office in Atlanta and a home in Hawaii.
An employee who works in another office is a more unusual situation. As a general manager in Seattle, I reported to a division vice president in Atlanta. As a GM in Richmond, I had multiple employees throughout the state who worked in my division but had offices in the buildings of another division.
Hyper-Focused Goals and Objectives
Measurable and expanded goals and objectives are critically important for managing remote employees.
Evaluations are obvious examples of measurable goals and objectives. But remote employees require more extensive G&Os to replace what no longer exists. A manager can’t longer use his or her most important tools in the office for judging an employee’s behavior and performance: eyes and ears.
A manager who regularly walks through an office can observe which employees are working, socializing, taking long lunch breaks or working hard at their desks. Managers can stop and ask questions or make comments. They can turn immediately to the employees sitting 15 feet away when a sudden problem or question arises.
All of these sensory and subjective tools are unavailable with a remote employee. It means the manager must come up with new ways of tracking the employee’s work in much greater detail.
For example, goals and objectives that normally have monthly targets might now have weekly targets. Objectives might break down into smaller tasks and activities for the sake of better tracking.
These greater details result in a need for much more communication by phone, email and video conference calls.
Exhaustive Long-Distance Communicating
A well-developed communication structure is critical in a teleworking situation.
The structure includes all of the usual ways of communicating over any distance such as emails, phone calls and video conferencing. But the time commitment, frequency and detail of these methods are more important than a standard office situation. Verbal and written details replace the loss of non-verbal cues when people meet face to face.
It is not unreasonable to consider even a five- or 10-minute conference call at the beginning or end of every day.
Consider it this way: the call replaces what normally would be daily verbal interaction with an employee and manager who are in the same office.
Video conferencing is better than phone calls for anyone who uses the technology because it has more non-verbal cues (except for body language below the neck).
Finally, regular on-site visits with the employee give emotional support and all of the non-verbal cues that are missing in remote management. In case of longer distances, the manager and employee can trade visits. The manager will develop a better understanding of the employee’s environment and the employee will develop a stronger connection with the home base.
Productive or Lazy?
Remote working is a true test of an employee’s character. It requires strict self-reliance and self-discipline. The employee must overcome the temptations that are part of remote working. They include:
- I have more free time because there are no co-workers around for chatting.
- The boss isn’t looking over my shoulder.
- I got everything done early. Time for a nap or computer game.
Even employees who are highly disciplined and self-reliant will likely find extra time on their hands. It creates a dilemma for both the employee and the manager. Should the employee take the initiative to do more and fill the extra time? Should the manager demand more because the employee has the advantage of working without on-site supervision?
An ambitious employee can take advantage of the situation and accomplish more for the sake of long-term career advancement. A tolerant manager might ask for more in exchange for the “benefit” of letting the employee work remotely, especially employees who work from home.
An intense communication structure will help ensure better productivity. A manager who is easily distracted by office activity and doesn’t communicate consistently runs the risk of having an unproductive employee or one who quits out of frustration and isolation.
A note of warning: smart managers eventually detect remote employees who take too much advantage of their freedom.
The Downsides to Isolation
Working remotely has downsides to the employee and not just the manager. The best part of teleworking is a strong sense of freedom. The worst part is isolation, insecurity and loneliness. Some people cope with it better than others.
As someone who managed remote employees, I found the better ones struggled with being alone. During tough economic times, they also worried about job insecurity because they had less daily access to company information.
As someone who went from senior management to starting a business out of my home, I struggled with the abrupt loss of direct social contact throughout the day. Getting used to it takes months if not years. The sense of freedom wears off while the sense of isolation grows.
Employees who handle it well are more likely strong self starters who don’t need extra supervision. Introverts (like myself) also do better with it because they may not need or want much social contact.
Once again, a strong communication plan is essential for managers who want to motivate remote employees for maximum productivity and job satisfaction. They also give them the emotional support they often need.