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Remote workers: Are they part of the team?

The movement to a more open workforce creates opportunities as well as risks. High-performing companies are using the open workforce to deliver competitive advantage, and many organizations expect the shift in using external talent in favor of full-time employees to accelerate in the future.

One challenge of managing decentralized workers is giving them a sense of inclusion. Their in-person interaction is limited, and even face-to-face virtual meetings are not the same as sitting down together for lunch or coffee. But there are ways to make remote staff feel like part of the team.

Get to know your staff as people. Managers learn about the lives of in-person workers through impromptu interactions, but they lack those opportunities with remote workers. In all-staff meetings, strengthen the bonds of familiarity with casual talk at the start of video conferences or phone calls.

Set clear expectations for work. Because remote staff are not down the hall, it can be more difficult for them to ask follow-up questions on work assignments. Managers of remote workers should clearly describe the duties for a report or project. Time zone differences are another reason to set clear expectations. First, a worker with a question might not be able to reach you if you’re sleeping while they’re working. Second, sometimes workers received email and logged back into the system at midnight to complete assignments. An Outlook calendar set to workers’ time zones allows the manager to be sensitive to his employees’ schedule.

Recognize remote workers’ contributions. It’s easy to type out “nice work” when praising an employee, and while positive reinforcement is a good thing, it’s also necessary to provide specific, regular feedback to a remote worker. The employee you might see at the coffee machine will get more feedback than the one you never see, so be intentional in reaching out to the far-flung worker.

Arrange visits, both ways. Organizations should budget for and schedule time for in-person interaction with decentralized workers. Remote employees should visit the main office, and supervisors should visit remote workers. This helps remote workers strengthen relationships with peers, catch up on company news, and meet new employees they knew previously only from phone calls. Additionally, the in-person visit gives remote workers a chance to discuss serious concerns with their supervisor that they might have hesitated to bring up in a virtual meeting.

The challenge of evaluating remote workers

It’s fairly simple to deliver positive feedback electronically. Send a text message to communicate “job well done” privately. Or you can send email to a group to praise someone, and the employee is publicly recognized for good work. But how do you deliver criticism electronically? Not as easily, and it’s even more difficult to give negative feedback to an employee who works in a different location.

One way is the 3-3-1 model: The manager and direct report meet monthly, and the manager shares three things that went well, three things that could be improved, and one goal for the next 30 days. Or the same meeting could be held weekly. The meetings are development- and performance-focused and should not include progress updates. To avoid getting off track, keep them short—no more than 10 or 15 minutes. Ideally, progress updates should occur on an ad-hoc basis or in another scheduled meeting.

The objectives for teams and individuals are more clearly spelled out, and regular reviews and unstructured contact keeps managers up-to-date on remote workers’ progress.

Dan Griffiths, CPA, CGMA is the director of strategy & leadership at Tanner, LLC, a Salt Lake City-based firm.

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