How to Get the Best From Virtual Employees

May 5, 2014
8 Min Read

Some days it’s a challenge just to manage the people who sit within 10 feet of you, let alone someone who is 500 miles away or even on another continent.

But that’s becoming more of an everyday occurrence for managers who must cope with far-flung workers who may be in locations that make it nearly impossible to see them in person on a regular basis. They must instead rely on Skype, email, phone calls – and even their gut – to effectively motivate and engage workers who can often feel isolated and unappreciated in remote locations.

Kevin Sheridan, an expert on managing mobile employees and author of “The Virtual Manager,” says the biggest problem in managing remote workers is trust.

“This is especially true for old-school managers who have trust issues with people they cannot see,” Sheridan says. “They may think these people are just goofing off.”

But trust issues also can affect how a remote employee feels about a manager. For example, employees who are in other locations may feel the manager doesn’t really appreciate the work they do and the contributions they make. They may even feel like they don’t get the same kind of recognition or rewards as those who are seen on a daily basis by the boss.

That sentiment is underscored in a recent American Psychological Association survey that finds nearly one in four workers say they don’t trust their employer and only about half believe their employer is open and up front with them.

Sheridan says that if managers are having difficulty trusting workers they don’t see on a regular basis, then “shame on them,” because that means they didn’t hire the right people in the first place. If managers make smart hires, then they are willing to let go and let the employees do their jobs without worrying they’re playing “Ninjas Never Die” instead of working.

In his book, Sheridan offers some suggestions on how you can best manage remote workers:

  1. Schedule status updates.  If you check in too often with remote workers, it will seem like you’re micromanaging, so schedule status updates that keep you abreast of their progress and prevent you from bugging them unnecessarily. These meetings can take place weekly or biweekly, or even several times a week if the employee asks for them. For employees who may work several time zones away, it may be more convenient if these status updates are made via email.
  2. Remember that it’s not always about work. Status updates are a good opportunity to get a feel for how the employee is doing, but managers also need to schedule time to just do a friendly check-in with remote employees. Think about it: How often do you check on an employee’s welfare while passing in the hallway or grabbing a cup of coffee? That’s not possible with a virtual worker, so you must make the effort to show that you don’t have an out-of-sight-out-of-mind mentality. Make it a habit to pick up the phone to have a “how are you doing?” conversation on a regular basis.
  3. Use virtual tracking. There are various kinds of tracking systems, but they all aim to share documents that keep everyone apprised of a project’s status. Many employers offer intranets that make it easy for everyone to see progress or post suggestions. These are ideal for helping employees see their forward momentum and keep them motivated and engaged.
  4. Track performance.  Sheridan says that in some ways, it’s easier to evaluate remote workers because “you do not see these employees in person on a regular basis, so your opinion is less likely to be clouded by their behavior or any personal judgments you might make from physically seeing the employee.” The question is simply whether they performed or not, information that can be easily gleaned from status updates and virtual tracking systems. He does urge managers to provide more feedback to remote workers, because they’re unable to “receive in-person cues about performance.” The APA survey finds that while the majority of workers are satisfied with their job overall, less than half say that they are satisfied with the growth and development opportunities and employee recognition practices.
  5. Respond immediately to glitches.  If a remote worker is missing goals, doesn’t keep managers or teammates updated and isn’t making progress, it’s critical a manager move quickly, he says. “Underperforming virtual employees stick out like a sore thumb,” he says, and the way a manager responds can determine the future success of remote teams.” If the time comes that a manager needs to have a serious conversation about poor performance, the manager should travel to the remote location to have a face-to-face talk, Sheridan says. Skype can be a second option, but it’s always better for the worker and the manager to speak of problems in person, he says.

Another issue to keep in mind is that employees working in remote locations may not sound the alarm when things go wrong, believing they shouldn’t bother the boss. While you may spot a stressed worker in an office, it can be harder to detect when someone is struggling 2,000 miles away. The APA survey finds that almost one-third of workers report feeling tense or stressed out during the workday.

That’s why you need to encourage remote workers to talk about the challenges they are facing, and the solutions they may be crafting. By being a sounding board and offering support, small problems won’t grow into big ones and remote workers will feel a manager is concerned about them and stay engaged even if they’re half a world away.

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