Tips for Managing Telecommuting (or Any Other) Employees

More and more organizations are offering flexible work arrangements to their employees these days.  This could include everything from getting to choose one's hours, compressing work schedules to allow more days off, and of course working away from the office, on a sporadic basis, a regular schedule, or even full-time.   These arrangements can be great for employees, but they definitely present challenges for managers.  The good news is that almost all the tips for managing telecommuting employees apply to management in general.  Telecommuting just forces managers to be more intentional in their approach, but a lot of it is hopefully stuff you're already doing just to be a good manager.  Here are a few best practices to consider, even if you don't currently have any employees working remotely.

Clearly define the work expectations on a weekly basis.  

Both you and the employee need to be on the same page regarding what needs to be done in a particular week.  In some cases, this may be defined by you, but another good approach is to have each of your employees document in a shared team forum:

1.  What they accomplished last week
2.  What they're planning to work on this week
3. Any obstacles or issues currently or potentially affecting their work

This helps in creating accountability as well as ensuring that they're working on the right things.

Check in on progress in a consistent and predictable way.

Establish up front how you are going to check in with the employee on his or her progress.  Weekly one-to-one meetings are great for this, and cloud-based project management tools can provide even more frequent information for you.  Figure out what information you'll need and when you might need it so that you can avoid randomly interrupting the employee to ask for an update.  

Use technology to help your team be as productive and stay in the loop, and make sure employees have the technology they need.

There are so many great apps and programs available to help teams to communicate and manage their work.  Work with your team to find the solutions that will be most appealing to them, and then ensure that everyone on the team uses them consistently.  Slack is a great tool for facilitating team communication and has the added benefit of allowing employees to get out of their e-mail inboxes.   It is also important to make sure that employees have the necessary technology to be able to work effectively from a non-office location.  If budget permits, consider providing large monitors for employees who work from home.  

Establish telecommuting as a privilege, not a right.

Not every employee has the self-discipline and even the personality to work well outside of an office environment, and telecommuting should be a reward for high-performing employees.  Unless your company is 100% remote or just doesn't have the office space, you should convey to your team that telecommuting is a privilege contingent upon continued productivity and performance and can be revoked.  It can be very demotivating to your high performers if they know that one of their teammates is not actually working when telecommuting, so it's important for you to make sure that everyone is pulling their weight on the team.  You are still the boss, regardless of where your employees are working.

Get the team together in person periodically.  Try to avoid anyone operating 100% virtually.

Some of the happiest telecommuters are those who have a mixed schedule with a few days in the office and a few days at home.  This enables them to stay connected with their team but also have some "deep work" days with few interruptions.  If it's not possible to have your employees on this kind of a schedule, perhaps because your company is 100% remote, find ways to bring them together at least a few times per year.  Video chat can be helpful in creating personal connections, but nothing can replace the richness of in-person interactions.  That's not to say that your employees need to be BFFs, but virtual communication requires team members to give each other the benefit of the doubt.  That's a lot easier if they know each other. 

Make your expectations regarding availability clear, and make sure those expectations are realistic.

How accessible do your employees need to be when they are working from another location?  Do they need to be logged in to chat at all times?  Is it okay for them to run errands in the middle of the day as long as they make up the time?  Does it matter which hours they work if they're meeting their weekly goals?  Do they need to return phone calls within a certain amount of time, or must they always be available by phone during certain hours?  What are those hours?  Defining all of this up front can help avoid any misunderstandings and can help you to get clear on what you really expect from your telecommuting employees.  It also helps the employee to understand the tradeoffs that come with the freedom of telecommuting.

Make a conscious effort to include all members of the team in communications.

As one executive put it, "there are no halfsies" when it comes to virtual work.  If you allow any of your employees to work outside of the office, then you need to make sure that all team communications are documented in a way that all employees can access them.  Making decisions in the hallway won't work if critical contributors aren't included in the conversation.  

What's great about creating a telecommuting-friendly work environment is that it forces you to become more intentional in communicating and managing the work, and it also makes it possible for you to "supervise" without being physically present.  While your company may not support your working virtually on a regular basis, having strong protocols in place for virtual workers on your team will make your life a lot easier in emergency situations where you cannot be in the office for one reason or another.

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