I’ve recently started managing two employees who work off-site — one from a branch office across the country and one who works from home. I’m used to having my team in the same location as me and I’m uneasy about how to manage well from a distance, especially when it comes to making sure they’re on top of their work.
In some ways, managing off-site employees isn’t much different from managing on-site staff, but it does require you to manage really well. While you can sometimes get away with being more ad hoc in managing on-site staff — for instance, skipping one-on-ones in favor of grabbing whatever facetime you can during the week — that approach can blow up when it comes to remote employees.
In particular, it’s essential to be thoughtful and deliberate about these five areas when managing people in a different location from you:
1. Establish goals with clear benchmarks and markers of success. In managing remote staff members, you may wonder how to know whether the work is really getting done or getting done as efficiently as it would in the office. The answer lies in agreeing on clear, ambitious goals for what the employee will accomplish in a given month, quarter or year, and checking in on their progress against those goals regularly.
Doing this will get you both aligned on what matters most — what must be done in order to perform successfully — and will give you a clear way of telling whether or not someone is producing at the level you expect. This is something you should do with all employees, of course, but it’s particularly important when someone is working in a different location.
From there, check in on those goals regularly: What progress is the person making toward them? Are they on track to hit the goals by the timelines you’ve determined? That’s what matters. More than accounting for how they’re spending every hour of their day when you can’t see them.
2. Create regular times to talk. When you work in the same location as a staff member, it’s easy to grab one another when you need to talk. With remote relationships, you’re less likely to communicate regularly if you don’t have a formal system, so set up a standing weekly call and be vigilant about sticking to it.
In addition, make sure that you’re using that time well. A weekly call won’t do you much good if it consists of a lot of “So, how’s everything going?” and “Everything’s fine.” Instead, really probe into how your staff member’s work is playing out, with questions like, “What are you most worried about?” and “How are you approaching X?” along with other questions that dig beneath surface answers.
3. Be clear about your expectations around accessibility. Often managers of remote staff get concerned when they call and can’t reach the employee or don’t get their emails returned quickly. Sometimes there’s good reason for this concern; the employee truly isn’t as engaged as they should be. But plenty of other times, the employee simply has a different understanding of what type of accessibility is expected, has turned off email for the day to focus on a project without distractions or is out at a string of meetings.
As a manager, you don’t need to try to figure out which one it is if you set up clear expectations around accessibility at the start. For instance, you might agree that all phone calls and emails from colleagues should be responded to within a day, or that your staff member will set up an “away” message on a chat program if she’ll be away from her computer for a significant amount of time.
4. Find ways to see remote employees in action. It’s easy to start feeling uneasy when you only have the employee’s word to tell you how things are going. Instead, find ways to see the work playing out, such as: joining some of their phone calls, reviewing regular reports with data indicating progress toward the desired goal or — depending on the type of work they do — even shadowing them for a day. Any of those tactics will give you a better feel for how the work is really progressing and help you to know whether something is going off-track.
5. Don’t leave remote employees out of your development efforts. If you have a mix of remote and on-site employees, it can be easy to inadvertently give the bulk of your development energies to the ones physically present. Make sure that your remote employees aren’t getting the short end of the stick when it comes to feedback, coaching conversations, mentoring, opportunities for stretch assignments and overall career guidance.
Because it’s so easy for “out of sight, out of mind” to be the default operating principle in this area, you might even want to set up a structure to ensure you help develop remote employees in this way. For instance, you could plan to do quarterly development check-ins with each off-site employee as a way to force you to jointly reflect on how things are going and what opportunities exist to build the staffer’s skills.
Alison Green writes the popular Ask a Manager blog, where she dispenses advice on careers, job search, and management issues. She's also the author of “How To Get a Job: Secrets of a Hiring Manager” and “Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Leader's Guide to Getting Results,” and the former chief of staff of a successful nonprofit organization, where she oversaw day-to-day staff management, including hiring and firing.