7 Mistakes Managers Make When Managing Remote Workers

Allowing employees to work from home or other remote locations is often touted as a way to keep workers more engaged and retain key employees. With more than 3.3 million working remotely, or about 2.6% of the U.S. employee workforce, it’s clear that the definition of the American workplace is changing.

But that doesn’t mean working remotely is without its problems. Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer put the kabosh on work-from-home deals and ordered everyone to return to the office so they could be more collaborative and innovative. Soon after, Hewlett-Packard CEO Meg Whitman issued a memo urging the employees to work more in the office because “HP needs all hands on deck.”

Dan Ingram, vice president of marketing at Enkata, writes in Wired.com that his company found that those who work in an office do get more done, but telecommuting isn’t going to go away because it does offer many advantages such as savings on office space and a broader candidate pool.

“The problem is that many companies, Yahoo included, manage telecommuters exactly the same as they would manage people in the office. This doesn’t work,” he writes.

So let’s look at the biggest mistakes you make as a manager when it comes to remote workers:

  1. You hire the wrong people for the wrong reasons. Offering remote arrangements can certainly help you recruit and retain workers, but if that’s all a candidate focuses on, then that’s not someone you want to hire. “Hire them for the job. Don’t focus on the flexibility at all,” suggests FlexJobs CEO Sara Sutton Fell. “If they keep bringing up the flexibility in the interview, then that’s a red flag.” In other words, those who prize the idea of flexibility above all else are more committed to their needs than anything else, including a job.
  2. You pay too much attention to Yahoo.  Yahoo has become the poster child for “What is Wrong With Telecommuting” when the issues were much more complicated. But managers at other companies will seize upon such anecdotes and proclaim: “No telecommuting. Ever.” That’s shortsighted and can lead to losing some valuable workers or potential new talent. It’s better to think about your company culture and your team so your workers don’t become resentful of your attitude. Think about it: Many employees are already telecommuting with the amount of time they spend taking care of business at home.
  3. You don’t understand what the employee really does. Fell says managers often don’t give a lot of thought to how an employee does a job. A manager just wants to see an employee sitting in a chair, and then he or she feels that work is getting done. But look at issues such as how much of the work is accomplished independently, how often the person must meet in person with others and when and how they conduct important conversations, she suggests. That gives you a much more realistic idea of whether the job can be done remotely.
  4. You don’t know what makes the person tick. If you stick a young and social employee in a remote location, you are likely to soon have an unhappy and uninspired worker, Fell explains. Someone who gets “easily distracted by shiny objects” also is probably not the best candidate to work from home, and needs the daily interaction with a manager. But those who are proactive communicators and are self-disciplined may thrive in a remote location and see it as a reward for their performance, she adds.
  5. You don’t set up metrics to measure progress. Working from home can be a mixed bag in terms of employee engagement. A Gallup survey finds that working remotely less than 20% of the time is very good for engagement, but doing it 100% of the time can lead to active disengagement and those disgruntled employees can infect others. So if you want to ensure you’re striking the right tone with remote workers, you need to have measurements in place. Fell suggests not only monitoring output, but also ensuring deadlines and targets are being met.
  6. You forget about them. Once you get over the person not being in the office, you don’t give them much thought beyond sending an email requesting information on a project. If you acted that way with someone in the office, it would be weird and rude. Managers need to make informal calls to remote workers, asking how things are going and just shooting the breeze. This lets the employee talk about issues of concern, or just feel acknowledged and appreciated. Managers should also remember to invite the remote worker to events like employee picnics or parties or use a company intranet to post items like birthdays or awards to let them feel like they’re still part of the team.
  7. You miss warning signs. If a remote worker is missing deadlines or being asked to re-do work, then it could mean there’s a problem with communications. Don’t ignore the situation but meet with the worker to determine if you need more Skype conversations or should set up instant messaging to improve the situation. 

What other mistakes do managers make when it comes to remote work arrangements?

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  • Great post Anita, what are some of the positive things you find managers do with remote workers?
    Keep up the great work

    • Anita Bruzzese

      A lot of it has to do with communications. Remote workers say that can feel isolated, and miss some of the “around the watercooler” kinds of discussions. If managers take the time to phone workers — or have them come to the office periodically — it can alleviate some of that isolation and make them feel part of the team.

      • Thanks for the comment Anita,

        Definitely agree it makes it challenging for a manager but at the same time can lead to a more motivated/engaged worker if you show they are valued enough for you to allow them to do this..


      • BobR

        Please only have them come in if really needed. I’ve been a telecommuter for seven years, and just switched companies to one that has about half of the staff in the office and half home. It’s getting frustrating, because they keep asking me to come in for 1/2 hour meetings for people’s birthdays, work anniversaries, etc. No! I won’t feel excluded, I promise. Doing that takes nearly 2 hours of my day including the commute, so I lose two hours worth of work (that I’ll inevitably make up after hours because the work is due). I like people, really. But I am more productive at home. Feel free to invite the remote workers, but PLEASE stress to them that it’s ok if they don’t attend, or they will wonder if they’re doing the wrong thing by not attending. It’s getting maddening.

  • Mandy

    The title of the article really should be ‘managing telecommuters’ as that is the focus of the piece. I was really hoping for some direction on managing employees who work in remote offices (e.g. I am in Chicago and just hired someone who is going to work for me out of our Dallas office – not necessarily from home). Any suggested reading for that situation? Thanks.

    • Anita Bruzzese

      An article specifically on managing workers in remote offices is in the works. Stay tuned!

  • Ray Lindenberg

    Like most Yanks, I’m enamored with square, symbolic numbers — such as a healthy, bold “10”, as opposed to the slimmer “7”. But I have a better reason to bulk up to the “10” spot…I think there are 3 “mistakes” that are worthy of accompanying the 7 in the article — and as a matter of fact, I could probably make a pretty strong case that they could register in the 1, 2 and 3 spot. These certainly were other management mistakes that contributed to the Big Yahoo BooBoo:

    Mistake # 1 (or # 8): A lack of Accountabilities that must have been an ongoing oversight. How did things get so screwed up at Yahoo that they felt they had to pull such dramatic measures as to call all the troops back to the foxhole in one fell swoop?

    Mistake # 2 (or # 9): A lack of Follow-up. Where were the performance management and corrective measures all along? Where was management and supervision so that things wouldn’t get so out of hand?

    Mistake # 3 (or # 10): Inadequate Communication. You mean there was a clear indication of expectations, and the lines going in both directions between Remote Working employees and On-Site Managers/Supervisors worked satisfactorily, yet they still found it necessary to blind-side the teleworkers with a sweeping policy change that goes against modern workspacism trends and wisdom — and perhaps were among the conditions that made employees accept employment at Yahoo, only to have the goal posts suddenly and unexpectedly switched on them?

    There were probably laggards and loafers in the telecommuting lot — but most were productive loyalists that deserved better. And if there were some malingerers, they deserved dignified, individual performance management treatment…in the same manner that they were hired individually.

    Why stain all their careers and resumes with a scarlet Y! when it was a smaller percentage of telecommuters that weren’t measuring up — and more than likely, mismanagement and a lack of effective Accountabilities, Follow-Up and Communication that let things get out of whack? Is the proficiency of the on-site managers really going to be much better, if the Remote Worker managers were flubbing it? Is it possible for Presenteeism to provide the cover for hiding-in-plain-site? Do soldiers fail, or are the generals more responsible for outcomes?

    Marissa Mayer had all the reason in the world to shake things up at Yahoo — that was what she was hired to do. But with that responsibility comes managing responsibly…from the top down…and being careful not to have your actions misconstrued and you turned into the Pied Piper of anti-telecommuting with the bright lights shining down on you for months on-end and remaining mum, before you clarified your position that you weren’t repudiating Remote Working.

    On-site working is critical for the development of new and strengthened relationships, teamwork, serendipitous synergy and productive interruptions. But it doesn’t need to be exclusive on-site working — nor does it need to be exclusive Remote Working, either. Most organizations (not all) value from a balance and blend of both.

    What neither work-way deserves is demonizing and dismissal while we’re in the midst of today’s evolving Modern Workspacism Movement Era. Good or bad Remote Worker performance is primarily an extension and reflection of good or bad Remote Worker performance management practices and effectiveness.

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  • Work-From-Home is a Work in Progress

    Really helpful tips for managing a work-from-home employee. Despite its increase in
    popularity, the work-from-home setup still has a long way to go, I think. It’s actually among the primary reasons why our clients hire remote teams with Bolton Remote – easing the pain of problematic experiences with home-based freelancers.

    Office-Based Remote Workers?

    Dan Ingram’s powerful statement that “…those who work in an office do get more done, but telecommuting isn’t going to go away because it does offer many advantages such as savings on office space and a broader candidate pool.” basically sums up our setup here at Bolton Remote; an office setup for remote employees to work from.

    With a huge talent pool to tap by hiring remote, and the more productive and process-driven approach given by office setups, it makes sense to just turn to remotesourcing – especially for businesses that already have a mature set of processes to work with.

    Many of our clients enjoy remotesourcing as it keeps the productivity and fast, steady growth that only an office setup can provide while keeping the things that make building remote teams so compelling:
    – Being able to hire who you need
    – Cutting costs on hiring and office expansion

    Question: Do you think home-based freelancers will soon be a thing of the past? Or will the home office soon make other employment models obsolete? I’d love to hear your thoughts on these.

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  • Great post:-) I especially like the part about hiring the right people for the job. Think this is the most tricky thing as a remote employee needs to be driven, motivated and efficient which makes some people unsuitable for this type of work. If you do not spare the time in recruitment stage then you might wind up with a team that simply does not do anything if you are not watching…

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