Business Basics: How to effectively manage remote employees

28 October 2019

Business Basics is a monthly Q&A series addressing current issues and trends in the world of business. Talking with experts, specialists and industry leaders, we hope to share insights and advice which provide food for thought for your business.

In this, the October 2019 edition of Business Basics, we’re talking to Sam Wilson, Co-Founder and Marketing Director of Virtual Assistant company Virtalent. Sam oversees a team of 40 employees who work remotely throughout the UK, so is well placed to address the issue of how to effectively manage remote employees.

Read on for the complete Q&A.

There is an inherent trust to remote working. How can a manager ensure they don’t fall into the habit of micro-managing employees who work from home?

It’s important to recognise that any doubt is completely natural, yet irrational. We’re human.

Because we can’t see someone physically working at their desk, this creates an unknown in our minds. We worry that our staff are somehow not working as diligently as they would be if sat under the watchful gaze of their manager a few desks away.

But would you know any more about what your employees get up to if they were sat in your office? Would you really be standing over their shoulders to check what is showing on their computer screen, every minute of the day? No, of course you wouldn’t.

The key word here is trust. In reality, employees need to be trusted to do the job you hired them to do and, if you can’t do that, someone is at fault here – regardless of where they work. Either they have done something to break your trust – in which case the relationship won’t work anyway – or your doubts are irrational and need to be confronted as such.

It’s important to recognise the difference and take action accordingly, not try to micromanage the entire team.

Remote worker

How often should you engage with remote workers?

It depends. It’s often a good idea to say ‘hello’ in the morning and work to maintain a basic level of daily contact to prevent feelings of loneliness or isolation, especially if your team work from home (instead of a coworking space, for example).

And yet, this can stray too far in the other direction. One of the key benefits of remote working is that employees are often more productive. Naturally, not being surrounded by people in an office means they should be able to focus on the task at hand without constant interruption, or being roped into endless meetings.

It’s important not to try to overcompensate, disrupting what is the most valuable commodity to your team: their time. Any communication beyond basic social interaction needs to be evaluated closely. If it doesn’t add value, lose it!

What can a manager do to make sure remote staff aren’t made to feel secondary compared to employees who work in-house?

The simple answer is to adopt a remote-first policy, whereby everyone in the company works remotely, either full-time or most-of-the-time. Sure, you can keep a (perhaps smaller) office space for staff to work from or meet clients if they prefer, but it should be clear that this is entirely optional.

If this more radical approach isn’t possible, work to eliminate silos and knock down barriers between remote and in-house staff. This starts by ensuring that all staff – inside or outside the office walls – share the same communication channels (try Slack channels instead of team stand-up meetings, for example) and that any key information is always disseminated across the entire team, ensuring no one is left out in the cold.

Remote worker in cafe

Can a manager instil a sense of company or office culture in their remote employees?

Yes, but everyone in the team plays a part in building a culture. For everyone to make their own individual commitment, it’s important to make it clear to your team that remote working is a long-term integrated part of the company philosophy, not an “add-on” or experiment of some kind.

Once everyone is on board, those individuals need to be able to shine. Technology should be an enabler, not a barrier to this. How can you ensure each member of your ‘tribe’ can show off their individual personalities, interact and get to know each other? How will they develop a strong sense of belonging? Culture is defined by the collective behaviour of the entire group, so each and every member needs to be able to both contribute and feel accepted.

Remote working could involve crossing time zones. How can managers balance this potential inconvenience?

Strategically implement asynchronous and synchronous communication channels. Asynchronous communication – think email, message board or forum – is when team members can communicate on their own terms. This is slower but, importantly for remote teams, eliminates the burden on team members to reply instantly.

Synchronous communication is a meeting or phone call. It’s easy to instinctively rely on this type of communication, but this is exactly when time zones can prove a challenge. Everyone has different working hours, all filled with conflicting commitments.

It’s important to realise that the vast majority of communication can (and should) be done asynchronously: project updates can be posted as comments on Basecamp, reports can be prepared and sent over email. Anything left over should be reduced to short, rapid-fire meetings with anyone who must be present, present.

In short, it’s easy to avoid the challenges of different time zones: just reduce the amount of synchronous communication demanded by each member of your team.

man working out of hours

Is there a value to “remote socialising”? If there are in-office benefits like Friday drinks, how can remote employees get involved?

Yes! In fact, many businesses go too far in the other direction. There is still a huge amount of value to be gained from getting your remote team to meet in-person from time to time if at all possible; a company retreat on a sunny Thai beach once per year, or the occasional social meet up between a few in-country team members, for example.

In fact, it’s quite frankly impossible to fully replicate in-person interaction in an online environment, complete with body language, eye contact, handshakes or warm embraces, so don’t try to do so.

Instead, make time for social interaction during any meetings, instead of diving straight into the agenda – five minutes of chit chat goes a long way – and create a space for informal conversation; a team Slack channel that acts as a ‘virtual water cooler’, for example.

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Some managers may be concerned that a full 40 hours of work from remote employees might not be achieved. How can remote employees’ performance be measured?

Firstly, why 40? For remote working to work, employees should have some control over their working schedule. That might not mean a set 9-5.

Unless they’re working on a factory production line, their performance should be measured on the delivery of tangible outcomes, not on the time they clock in and out of work. If they can get just as much done in 35 hours, most likely because they’re free from the constant interruptions and distractions of an open plan office, then perhaps that’s enough.

Set clear objectives. Measure KPIs. Pay less attention to how or when they do the work to get there.

speaking to client from home office

What can a manager do to reward such employees and recognise their achievements?

Transparency is key here. Put in the work at the start to set realistic, but ambitious objectives for every member of the team, get their agreement that these are fair and achievable, then tie any rewards to the completion of these goals. Again, try not to be overly concerned about how they get there.

If these objectives are measured by black and white metrics – the value of new sales secured for the company or the number of mailing list subscribers, for example – and hitting these goals is tied to clearly communicated rewards, the rest is easy.

Rewards don’t need to be monetary, either. Financial bonuses are motivating and should always form a part of any solid reward structure, but sometimes much smaller rewards can have a greater impact. Try surprising top performers with a gift now and again; a book you think they would enjoy reading or tickets to a football match, for example. We are emotional human beings, not robots!

A huge thank you to Sam for his helpful and actionable responses, which we feel demonstrate many of the benefits of remote working. If you’ve enjoyed this article, you may be interested in some of our other Business Basics Q&As, including:

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The views, opinions and positions expressed within this article are those of our third-party content providers alone and do not represent those of Gazprom Energy. The accuracy, completeness and validity of any statements made within this article are not guaranteed. Gazprom Energy accepts no liability for any errors, omissions or representations.

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