Keeping remote workers accountable

Results-driven approach, ground rules can make a difference
By Gena Griffin
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 03/11/2013

Efficiency and cost savings are key reasons employers allow employees to regularly or occasionally work from home or some other location outside a firm’s main facility. And powerful, cost-effective mobile technologies, wireless communications and online collaborative work applications have made it easier than ever for businesses to support these arrangements.

Offering remote working opportunities can also be a powerful recruitment and retention tool — many people expect to have greater flexibility to work remotely, at least occasionally.

But ensuring that these unseen workers remain productive can be a challenge for managers — especially those lacking experience supervising off-site workers. By understanding the barriers of remote working arrangements, however, supervisors can keep these employees as accountable — and engaged — as their on-site counterparts.

Here are some ideas that can help:

Establish ground rules: For any employee, it’s critical to set goals and objectives. But for remote workers, it is even more crucial. These guideposts let people know what is expected of them and by what criteria they will be evaluated.

These should include job deliverables and the daily structure they should observe. For instance, are employees expected to be accessible at all times during normal business hours or will they have some schedule flexibility?

Stress results: Emphasize with any employees who are allowed to work remotely that, in the end, it’s their results that are valued. In fact, this is the reason a manager can permit telecommuting at all. Since supervisors can’t see whether workers are in their work spaces all day, there is an implicit trust projects will be completed properly and on time — which holds the whole telework arrangement together.

Explain to remote employees that being allowed to telework is a privilege and, if it is to be successful, it requires the utmost accountability on the part of participants. Avoid sounding overly harsh, but make sure workers know that a failure to take serious responsibility for deliverables is the quickest route to being brought back into the office.

On the other hand, remote staff members should be encouraged to give themselves proper breaks. One of the advantages of telework is the lack of interruptions but working non-stop too often can lead to exhaustion and erratic productivity.

Make communication job one: Maintaining strong, ongoing communication channels with remote workers is vital to the manager-teleworker relationship. The more off-site workers understand the bigger picture — and how their contributions move company objectives forward — the more likely they are to be successful.

Supervisors need to make sure they convey all of the same department and company information that they relay to other staff members. It’s easy to overlook remote employees on every communiqué, causing them to feel out of the loop. If important department or company news comes up when they’re off-site, make sure they’re informed. Email is useful, but a phone call may be appropriate if issues generate questions or need clarification.

And be sure employees have a reliable Internet connection and office supplies. Have IT staff provide them with remote network access, as appropriate to their role. Since employees will be working with confidential data, be sure IT has set up the requisite security protocols so information used remotely is just as secure as on-site data.

Keep them motivated: Keeping remote employees accountable is also about keeping them motivated. While technology has made it much easier for a department or team to work together from different locations, it hasn’t had the same effect on keeping scattered employees motivated and engaged.

Physical togetherness helps keep on-site coworkers in touch and working toward a common goal. In contrast, off-site workers often feel isolated. A lack of social interaction can cause teleworkers to become less motivated and not being able to bounce ideas off co-workers can prompt them to lose focus.

To help them fight this isolation, give remote staff more opportunities for the types of everyday interactions provided in-office. Encourage them to attend office events in-person whenever possible, especially for get-togethers to celebrate team projects. Scheduling occasional team-building sessions that include off-site workers gives them a chance to brainstorm and reignite their creativity.

Teleworkers also shouldn’t be overlooked when it comes to assignments with opportunities for growth, such as key projects or promotions. Be sure to give them the same considerations as their on-site peers for career-boosting opportunities.

Provide consistent feedback: Like many other management best practices, providing feedback to staff on a regular basis is especially important when team members are working remotely. When people are working from home, they don’t always know how their contributions are being received back at the office. Maintain an open dialogue with remote employees about how the arrangement is working.

Managers also need to ensure teleworkers receive recognition for their accomplishments — and that the rest of the team is aware of their contributions.

Whether you supervise people who occasionally work from home, who always work off-site, or both, a remote workforce requires different approaches to management. And while it may take some tweaking over time to make telework a successful option for a team, success depends largely on your willingness to understand its benefits and what managing remote staff really requires.

Gena Griffin is Toronto-based district president of Robert Half, parent company of Accountemps, Robert Half Finance & Accounting, Robert Half Management Resources and OfficeTeam. Follow Robert Half Canada on Twitter at twitter.com/RobertHalf_CAN.

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