Managing Remote Employees

by | Blog, General Business

In March 2020, we helped a number of small companies set up their employees to work from home due to office shutdowns mandated by the pandemic. Some employees had worked from home from time to time and some had never worked from home. The technology enablement turned out to be the easy part of the transition. Many managers and employees alike were unsure how to interact and what needed to change now that they weren’t working in the same space. I helped them with some remote “rules of the road” to make sure productivity and engagement stayed high. Now that it looks like remote work for many employees — at least part of the time — will remain in place, it may be time to revisit these and assess how effective your teams are and where there might be room for improvement.

Focus on What is Getting Done (Quantity and Quality)

While all employees want and deserve feedback on their job performance, many small businesses don’t follow performance management practices in any kind of formal way. As a result, there may not be a clear mutual understanding of just what performance is required of each employee. If your employees don’t have goals and clear performance standards, work together to create them. When manager and employee have a shared understanding of “what” should be happening, and ways to measure it, it is much easier to track and discuss performance effectively.

Weekly status reports can be very helpful in keeping lines of communication open. They may take a bit of time, but can also serve to keep track of accomplishments and issue resolution from week to week, saving time in one on ones for discussions about more strategic topics like skill and career development, barriers to goal achievement and how to overcome them, etc. Likewise, project plans and regular updates can keep work on schedule and quickly surface any issues that may arise. These are best practices whether in the office or not, but may be even more useful when you are not seeing each other day to day.

One issue that becomes more critical with remote employees is cybersecurity. Mandatory use of the company VPN and other cybersecurity best practices should be stressed and employees should understand the consequences of not complying with your company requirements. If you haven’t had a security audit or conducted training, work with your IT department or consultant to make sure you and your employees are up to date on the latest tools and techniques to keep your and your customers’ data secure and systems safe.

Remember That Culture is Built on the “How”

Many companies embody their culture in articulated values. Just because employees are remote doesn’t mean the values go out the window. Make sure employees know that how they interact and collaborate with each other is just as important as when in the office. Set reasonable standards for how quickly they should be expected to respond to requests for information or support from their fellow employees. Discuss how emergency needs for response should be handled. Make sure employees maintain accurate calendars (including location so folks can adjust for time zones) and have coverage when they are unavailable so nothing slips through the cracks. Encourage employees to pick up the phone and talk to each other rather than engage in long email or text chains. As an example, if an email has more than 4 messages, it is time to pick up the phone.

Also stress the importance of keeping data and systems secure and confidential, especially if regulatory compliance is required in your business. Be clear about the requirements of a home workspace (private, quiet, lockable files, etc.) and what is expected in terms of child care, pet interactions, etc. If you don’t have a remote work policy, consider developing one to make your expectations clear to current and future employees.

Communicate, Communicate, Communicate

Effective communication should, of course, be a given whether in the office or not. But when employees are working virtually, it becomes even more important. Maintaining regular one on ones with every employee with a standing agenda (progress against goals, any issues that have arisen, support the employee needs from the manager, etc.) is even more important when you don’t see each other face to face. If all is going well, the meeting may be short but the touchbase is still important for employees to feel connected and engaged. Remember to listen – and probe if you sense there are unspoken or unaddressed issues. You may not have the benefit of non-verbal signals (video meetings can help) so you have to be as attuned as possible to how the employee is feeling about work as well as the work itself.

Regular team meetings should continue as well, also with a standing agenda. While video meetings aren’t the same as in person, they can still be effective. Make them informative and interactive so employees want to attend. Reinforce any new standards or updates with “live” communication and ask for input/questions. Keep employees up to date on how the business is going, celebrate new customers, introduce new employees and their role (even if not on the team), product developments, technology updates and any other news of the business. Seek ways to encourage collaboration and celebrate successes. Have employees be prepared to share accomplishments and upcoming projects. Consider adding a fun element like introduce your pet time or fun facts (what was your favorite snack when you were 10?). Ask employees to rotate responsibility for taking notes and creating minutes to share with employees who couldn’t attend. Adjourn when the agenda is complete – if early so much the better. In general video meetings need to be shorter than in person sessions to reflect the drain on attention span and video fatigue.

Consider implementing “core hours,” “office hours” and/or “quiet time.” Core hours can be, for example, that everyone will work from 10 am – 3 pm ET, flexing their other hours earlier or later as they see fit. Office hours (especially for technical experts and managers) are open periods where the person is available for consultation just like a professor at school. It should be blocked time on their calendar. They can set up a virtual meeting that others can join as they need to. Quiet time is time the team declares as meeting and text/chat free zones. It is time that employees know they can just get heads down and work without being continuously interrupted or having others take up their time with meetings.

Streamline Use of Supporting Technologies

While technology can and does improve the way we work, it can also create a stressful deluge of information. One company I worked with had voicemail, email, chat/IM, and texting all going on simultaneously with no guidelines about which method should be used for what. Employees felt overwhelmed by the sheer volume of information coming their way. While this is often true in the office as well, it seems to be magnified when everyone is virtual.

Work with your teams to set guidelines for what types of information should be sent by email, when a text is preferred and what should be covered in chats/IMs. Keep compliance requirements in mind as well as texts on personal devices and chats that aren’t stored confidentially could breach regulatory requirements.

Set expectations for response times for each form of communication, and what to do when the expected response time can’t be met – especially for time-sensitive matters. Set guidelines for who should be copied and why. Unless the cc really needs to know or has requested to be kept up to speed on a topic, consider giving them the gift of one less email they will not read!

Many companies use Dropbox, SharePoint or other systems to share documents and information and keep version control under control. If your company has one or more of these systems, make sure employees use them as intended. If not, it becomes very easy for people to waste time seeking the latest version of the proposal template, communication guideline or whatever else they are looking for. If your teams use Microsoft Project or Teams or another tool to track day to day work, encourage team members to use it to its full potential. Consider training on capabilities that many employees may not be familiar with enough to use.

In many companies, some teams have always been remote from each other (field-based sales people, technicians, specialists). Employees and managers of these teams may have advice they can offer newly remote teams. Maybe your next Town Hall could feature a manager/employee pair from one of these teams to provide some advice or tips they’ve learned over the years on remote work best practices.

In summary, good management and leadership practices remain the same whether employees are in the office or work remotely but they are even more important in the context of virtual work. The biggest difference in managing remote employees may be intentionality. Managers need to consciously create opportunities for two-way communication and connection while reinforcing values and cultural norms. Company leaders need to model these behaviors and look for ways to reach out and support all employees, using methods that keep remote employees in mind. The results will be readily apparent – in productivity, retention and overall engagement.

Written By: John Foster

John Foster has 30 plus years of distinguished leadership and management experience with multiple companies at various stages of development across several fast-paced industries.
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