Managing Remote Employees: 10 Strategies and Best Practices
- Human Resources
6 min. Read
Last Updated: 03/28/2023
Table of Contents
While working from home may offer various opportunities to businesses and employees, it's important that employers think strategically about the best ways to develop and manage a remote workforce. In fact, according to the 2023 Pulse of HR, training managers on hybrid/remote employee management and career development is a priority for HR leaders today, whether teams are remote part or full-time.
Remote work may offer benefits for employees and employers alike. Working from home may offer staff significant work-life balance opportunities, such as an improved focus on projects and the elimination of commute times. Businesses can reduce costs (e.g., expenses related to utilities, janitorial services, or even mortgage and lease arrangements) and help maintain a healthy workplace when viral illnesses are at their peak.
No matter the circumstances that have employers considering remote workforce management, implementation often comes with challenges. Maximizing benefits while navigating potential pitfalls requires a clear strategy, the right infrastructure, and a close eye on both culture and human resource management. If you have questions about managing remote employees, are planning to evaluate your current WFH policy, or anticipate having remote employees, the following 10 best practices can help guide you through the process.
1. Set Clear Expectations and Document Policies
Successfully allowing your employees to work remotely starts with establishing clear parameters. No matter the circumstance for considering a WFH policy, it's important to set and communicate expectations for remote employees from the beginning, including:
- Which positions may be eligible to work from home,
- Guidelines around hours of availability,
- Job responsibilities, and
- Performance goals.
A remote arrangement or WFH policy should also establish clear business hours and address how to properly track hours worked, communication frequency, and data security best practices.
When a manager takes time to discuss the expectations about working offsite, it sets a precedent for clear and open communication. This is critical to not only effectively managing remote employees, but supporting their ability to turn in deliverables, ask questions, engage with the business, and get the answers they need to do their best work. This conversation should be ongoing, whether the arrangement is permanent or temporary.
2. Address Onboarding Challenges
Remote workers face a unique set of challenges during the onboarding process. They aren't physically immersed in the business culture and cannot walk down the hall to ask a colleague a quick question. It may be more difficult for a new, remote worker to develop relationships with their co-workers. These interactive aspects of work can be achieved but often require more detailed explanations and follow-up in a remote environment than a traditional in-office workspace.
An employer can set clear expectations, but remote workers need the right kind of support to meet those expectations from a remote location. This includes having the right technology and training to understand how to use it. Training should also emphasize the business culture and provide ways for a new hire to get to know other employees. For instance, consider pairing a new employee with a co-worker who can mentor the employee until they feel comfortable. Managers need to make sure they are available to answer questions and help new, remote workers access the resources they need for success.
3. Evaluate Your Technology
Technologies that help employees collaborate and connect are essential for managing remote employees and allowing team members to communicate with each other. In fact, 52% of HR leaders say they plan to provide technology that enhances communication between managers and remote/hybrid employees, and that makes it easy for employees to communicate questions and concerns to management in the coming year. If this is the case for your organization, your IT strategy may need to evolve to accommodate this. Consider hardware investments such as laptops, smartphones, and tablets. You may also consider if a "bring your own device" (BYOD) policy is right for your business. A good rule of thumb is for workers to test-run these devices before starting to work from home, to make sure they can connect to the internet and any job-specific internal networks while away from the worksite.
It may also be important to leverage cloud-based software systems and collaboration tools that make it possible to have conference calls, host webinars, work on documents simultaneously, engage in video chat, and participate in a way that can help increase productivity and build relationships.
Virtual communication and project management platforms allow employees to share knowledge, encourage conversation, and enhance meetings while staying connected with their supervisor, team, and company. Providing technical training to instruct remote employees and their managers on virtual tools and resources can encourage use.
Your technology should also support other business functions that remote workers need. HR and payroll services would ideally include an employee self-service feature, so workers can get answers to questions about their pay, hours, and benefits at their convenience without always having to speak to someone in HR.
4. Develop Collaboration Methods That Support Remote Workers
These days, remote work has become the norm, rather than the exception. Team members may be working on a project across different geographic areas and work environments. Because collaboration and clear communication are essential to productivity and the success of projects, collaboration methods should work for both remote and in-office employees. As such, it may come as no surprise that improved communication is currently the top technology goal for companies with 5-499 employees, while improved collaboration is the top technology goal of companies with 500+ employees.
Video fatigue is real. Using brain scans, researchers have found that video meetings require more cognitive processing than traditional, in-person meetings. There are several ways to combat this phenomenon.
- Ask yourself if a meeting is truly necessary. Perhaps the objectives can be met through an email with a conference call for follow-up.
- Carefully consider which meetings are essential for video and which ones can be handled in other ways.
- Adjust meeting length and style to be more appropriate for online communications. If video meetings are critical, try and group them together in a block. This can improve efficiency by creating fewer disruptions to an employee's workweek. Whenever possible, make the video portion optional.
Recognize that distractions of a different type are inherent with remote work locations. A dog can start barking during a conference or video call or a barista may be heard in the background. If a critical meeting is scheduled where these types of disruptions would be problematic, let staff know ahead of time so they can make appropriate arrangements.
5. Outline How Supervisors Can Stay Visible Without Micromanaging
Micromanaging an employee can imply a lack of trust, which is typically not a healthy foundation for a happy, productive workforce. Recognize that individuals have different work styles. One of the advantages of a flexible work environment is that it can allow an employee to take advantage of when they are most creative and productive, which may not perfectly align with traditional work hours.
That said, managers need to maintain communication with their teams and have visibility into work output. In a remote work setting, managers may need to check in more regularly with employees, but this could be perceived as micromanaging. It may be worthwhile to talk with supervisors before employees start working from home to discuss how to keep teams focused and productive when they're working remotely.
6. Create Human Capital Management Infrastructure
HR software can help facilitate collaboration across the company, allowing managers and staff located in different locations to easily share resources with remote employees.
From an HR perspective, companies can take a variety of steps to improve their ability to manage and serve a remote workforce. Cloud-based HR software can give employees self-service access to a range of different applications such as:
- Time and attendance reporting
- Benefits enrollment
- Information management
- Training and professional development
A flexible human capital management infrastructure can make it easier to successfully serve a remote workforce, while potentially delivering an outstanding HR experience.
7. Promote Culture and Information Sharing
When your team is dispersed, it's important to have a clear plan for promoting culture, disseminating knowledge, and communicating values. Tools such as an employee handbook and regular communications from leaders can help convey that information. This may include facilitating regular meetings, company-wide discussions, and forums.
It may be worth it to consider ways to bring employees together for occasional in-person interactions in ways that combine professional development and exposure to company culture. An annual, in-person retreat can be organized either regionally or even nationally. Consider offering an event once or twice each year to encourage remote workers who live near each other to get together. Doing so can strengthen a sense of team and camaraderie.
8. Understand Expense Reimbursement for Remote Workers
Remote workers are likely to have a set of expenses that differ from their in-office colleagues and it's important to understand how to make these reimbursements equitable. For instance, does the business provide on-site workers with coffee, tea, or snacks? Perhaps give remote workers a small stipend for the equivalent at their home office. Please note that there are reimbursement rules in certain jurisdictions that you should consider before making any final decisions.
9. Provide Meaningful Learning and Growth Opportunities
Knowledge-sharing is also critical when explaining key performance indicators for job evaluation. Feedback and follow-through on the remote employee's performance is critical to productivity and accountability.
Look for opportunities for the employee to evolve and develop in their role. A learning management system (LMS) is an ideal way to administer, document, track, report, and deliver educational resources, training programs, and opportunities to all employees. An LMS not only allows employees to learn when it is most convenient for them, but it may allow for anytime, anywhere access on any device — a notable benefit for offsite workers.
10. Consider Remote Employee Engagement and Teambuilding Activities
In the absence of face-to-face contact with colleagues and managers, remote employees could feel forgotten, disconnected, or unmotivated. Teambuilding activities can play an important role in engaging and nurturing a sense of camaraderie and can help workers stay productive and positive.
Activities based around health and wellness is one way to help keep employees engaged and connected. Additionally, healthier employees can mean a more vibrant and happier workforce with fewer health claims. Initiatives such as team-based step-counting contests or various physical and mental health challenges can be organized and tracked remotely to include all workers, regardless of location. This can be especially impactful if employees struggle to fit in physical activity around their work schedules or are at risk of burnout.
Establishing ways to celebrate and recognize employees' successes and accomplishments both professionally and personally can help nurture bonds and appreciation across teams. Be careful to make sure recognition is inclusive. A remote worker with a quiet, introverted personality can be easily overlooked. And don't overlook the impact that fun activities can have as well. If it fits with your business culture, encourage remote workers to introduce their pets or consider the occasional, designated video social hour.
Pitfalls and Challenges of Managing Remote Teams
While there are many benefits to a remote workforce, there are challenges of managing remote teams. These can include:
- Failing to Differentiate Between Remote Work and In-Person Work. Remote work environments remove much of the uniformity and control that are typical of a traditional, physical location. Many of the rules for success that apply to a traditional office don't always transfer to a remote location.
- No Clear Expectations or Boundaries. One of the benefits of working remotely is the ability to better balance personal and professional responsibilities. Due to different time zones or schedules, a remote worker may work different hours than a traditional worker. Lack of clear expectations around deliverables, desk time, and other responsibilities can develop a disconnect between a worker and a manager.
- Poor Communication. When managing a remote workforce, out of sight should not be out of mind. Regular communication is critical to keeping a remote worker and a manager aligned with their needs and goals. Information bottlenecks due to missed emails or phone calls, lack of clear instructions on assignments, and not being available to talk and answer questions are all examples of poor communication.
- Feelings of Isolation or Loneliness. Human engagement is an important part of mental health. A remote worker does not have the benefit of office camaraderie and the energy of spontaneous, work-related interactions. Couple this with poor communication and remote workers can struggle with developing a sense of attachment or loyalty to your business.
- Burnout. Blurring the lines between home life and work can lead to a remote worker putting in long hours, including weekends and holidays. This can lead to burnout. Symptoms of burnout include diminished enthusiasm and engagement as well as an increased risk of quitting.
- Lack of Trust. Remember that you hired an employee because they impressed you with their credentials and work ethic. Forgetting this and replacing it with a belief that a remote employee is trying to do as little as possible leads to micromanaging and a toxic work environment.
The Importance of Effective Remote Work Management
Remote work has become a lasting fixture in the business environment and the importance of remote work cannot be ignored. Manage a remote team successfully and an employer is likely to gain increased productivity, with loyal workers who are physically and mentally healthier. Other benefits can include lower attrition rates and an increased hiring pool. Mismanage a remote workforce and the opposite can occur in the form of frustrated workers, high turnover, and anemic output.
Like many things, effective remote work management is a learned skill and requires the ability to have an engaged and learning mindset. It's not just employers that need to adjust. Employees must also develop a different set of skills that allows them to be successful in a home office. Working together, and sharing successes, tips, and insights, employers and their workers can reap the benefits that come with this work arrangement.
HR Is Critical for Managing Remote Workers
When a business has remote workers, a combination of clear communication, effective technologies, and efficient collaboration tools must be part of the equation. A dedicated HR professional can guide you through each of these steps, and help you make sure your company and remote employees are set up for continued success.