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Successful strategies for managing telecommuters

“Like many, our company is embracing telecommuting more than ever and leaves it up to managers to decide who can take advantage of the policy. Some people on my team are doing it successfully, but we have some new people joining who will be eligible to work remotely. I still feel challenged about managing remote workers, given that not all people are able to work on their own. Any advice?”

As you know, lots more people are telecommuting now, way more than just a few years ago. The numbers are even bigger than you might realize. A study by Flexjobs and Global Workplace Analytics, showed that some 3.9 million people were working remotely in 2015 and that grew to 4.7 million in 2019 — or 3.4 percent of the population. The report also found there’s been a 159 percent growth in remote work over the past 12 years.

What’s driving the increase? Studies show that the possibility of working remotely helps attract and retain talent. Studies have shown that offering flexible schedules and remote work is one of the most effective non-monetary ways to retain employees. A 2017 study by Gallup found that employee engagement increased when employees worked a blended schedule, spending some time working remotely and time working onsite with their co-workers.

There are cost savings associated with telecommuting as well. The average business would save an average of $11,000 on each employee who works remotely for part of their work week, according to a study by Global Workplace Analytics.

But not every company is on board. In 2017, several major companies stepped away from telecommuting, including Best Buy, IBM, Honeywell and Bank of America, saying they wanted to improve collaboration, communication and teamwork in their organizations.

Indeed, managing workers remotely can be especially challenging, requiring high levels of communication and well-thought-out plans. A recent Paychex survey of human resources people cited several concerns, including engagement and retention, oversight of work, ensuring consistent productivity and training and development.

“When I first hired the two freelancers at the start, I did not define for them what working remotely means to me,” says Martin Luenendonk, co-founder of a startup called “Cleverism,” a platform which works  to match job-seekers with interesting opportunities.

“My bad, I assumed that they knew they would have to work 9 am to 5 pm at their place. But it was not the case. They just thought they could work anytime throughout the day to complete their working hours. This not only created lots of confusion but also led to miscommunication and decreased productivity. So now, before, hiring employees, I define my requirements explicitly.”

Matthew W. Burr, owner of Burr Consulting LLC and an assistant professor of Business Administration at Elmira College, agreed, saying that when these telecommuting arrangements fall apart, it’s often because of a lack of communications or a lack of trust.

“Some companies are new at having remote workers” he says. “They want to do it for the right reasons. Then they’ll see an employee on Facebook doing things they shouldn’t be doing during work time. I’ve also seen the lack of good job descriptions or managers forgetting to follow-up, so then you have disengagement as well.”

As you know, not every job can be done from home and not every employee is cut out for working remotely. Burr stressed the need to step back and carefully analyze which jobs can be done from home and which ones can’t. In many cases, an employee might need to be in the office part of the week and/or for certain “core hours.”

Other questions to ask include: Does the job require more face time than video conferencing would allow? What effect would telecommuting have on teamwork and culture?

Burr suggests drawing up an agreement between the employer and employee, with signatures from the supervisor, manager and HR. It includes the objectives of the job, the procedures, time expectations, eligibility for remote work, tax implications and more, as well as the costs of equipment and additional requirements, such as the need to attend certain work-related events. The agreement should be signed by everyone, Burr says. “It’s got to be sold all the way through.”

Logistics and buy-in aside, the most effective remote work programs involve high levels of trust, says Howard Prager, president of Advance Learning Group, which provides consulting on leadership development and teamwork.

“As a manager, you need to believe that your employees, associates and colleagues are doing the work that’s needed from home,” he says. “You need to develop confidence in their work and you do that by developing both a trusting relationship and seeing work output.”

Setting goals and objectives is important, as well. “Not for every minute or hour, just the goals and objectives needed for work, wherever that work is being accomplished,” Prager says. “And be careful not to micromanage!”

Another key is providing the right tools: tech support, networks to gain access to information stored on company servers needed to get the work done and other tools that will allow for work to be done more easily regardless of location.

Issues around micromanaging are a big challenge for many managers used to being able to lay their eyes on workers in the office. “Have a candid and authentic discussion and put expectations in place when it comes to their schedules and productivity,” says Charlene Walters, an author and business mentor. ”What are those items that are flexible and what are those that are more rigid and fixed? How frequently will you touch base?

“The goal here is also balance, not too much and not too little. Don’t be a micromanager, but don’t be too checked out either.”

Experts at Robert Half put it another way in their blog last spring. “If you’re unnecessarily checking in several times a day with remote workers just to ‘see how things are going’ those employees may feel like you don’t trust them.”

To track remote work and deliverables, many companies and telecommuting experts point to the value of Slack, Google Hangouts, and other online tools to track projects, updates and conversations. Brian Cairns, CEO of ProStrategix Consulting, a business consulting firm in New York, says he relies on one tool to manage his remote workers — a weekly status report.

It consists of four sections: agreements for the prior week (What did we say we were going to accomplish?); status of the items (What did we actually accomplish?); rationale/learnings (Why didn’t we accomplish what we said we would? What did we learn?); agreements for next week.

“This tool, along with weekly status calls to review, is a great way to manage remote workers and ensure things stay on track,” Cairns says. “It’s hard to hide work not being done. If things linger more than a week or two with a just cause, you know you need to take corrective action and you have the rationale for such action clearly documented.”

Rewards don’t hurt either. Jon Brodsky, chief executive officer/USA of Finder.com, says 75 percent of his crew works remotely, from 13 states and seven countries. “We take care to make sure that things like in-office perks are replicated at home. For example, we send snack boxes to our home-based crew each month to replicate having snacks in the office. (And yes, the crew gets to choose what boxes they get).”

Managers at Work is a monthly column exploring the issues and challenges facing managers. Contact Kathleen Driscoll with questions or comments by phone at (585)249-9295 or by e-mail at kadriscoll@aol.com.

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