how to know a remote worker has checked out – and what to do about it

When you’re managing remote employees, it can take longer to realize when there’s a problem than with employees who you see every day. Here are three signs that a remote worker has become disengaged, and what you can do about it when it happens.

  • You realize that you wouldn’t have any idea what your remote employee is working on if you didn’t ask. To be clear, employees who you trust to work remotely should have enough independence and autonomy that you shouldn’t need or expect play-by-plays of how they’re spending their time – but you should also expect good enough communication that you know how they’re progressing against their goals. If you realize that if you stopped asking for updates you could go weeks without hearing anything, that’s a likely sign that your employee isn’t strongly engaged.
  • It regularly takes a long time for your remote employee to return calls or answer emails. For telework to work effectively, remote workers need to ensure that it’s easy for coworkers to reach them, which generally means being especially responsive to calls and emails during business hours since people can’t just pop by their offices. If your remote employee is hard to reach and takes longer than other team members to get back to people, at a minimum it’s a sign that you need to re-establish accessibility standards with her. Because it can also be a symptom of larger productivity problems, it can also be a flag to take a closer look at her work output.
  • Your remote employee doesn’t know key facts about projects or the company that she should be in the loop about. This could be a sign that you or others aren’t doing a good job of keeping remote workers in the loop. But if you’re sure that the details she doesn’t know about were covered on calls and emails she was included on, it’s a sign that she’s not paying attention or retaining key info – which in turn is a sign that she’s checking out.

If you notice these signs of disengagement in remote workers, here are three steps you can take to get things back on track:

1. Dig in to how things are going on the employee’s side. Be direct about what you’re noticing and ask for the employee’s perspective. For instance, you might say, “I noticed that I’m hearing from you less than I used to and you seemed distracted in our last two meetings. How are things going?” Asking for your employee’s perspective before you draw any conclusions is essential because you might find out that she’s been sidetracked with an intensive piece of work, or having connectivity issues, or struggling with an element of her job.

2. Be direct about what you’d like to see. Be explicit about the behaviors that you’d like to see that you’re not seeing. For instance, you might explain that you’d like your employee to return calls from your team the day they’re received or reply to all emails within a business day.

3. Make sure your employee is invested in the work. When people work remotely, it can be easy to get detached from why the work matters and how it fits in with the larger picture. Make sure that you’re doing your part to explain how what your employee is working on ties into what the organization is trying to achieve and why that matters.

Of course, if the problems continue and you don’t see the changes you’ve requested, it might be time to look at whether you have the right person in the job, keeping in mind that ultimately, the right person for the job is someone who will be enthusiastic about the work without needing you to motivate her. But working remotely can be hard, and it’s worth doing a check-up now and then.

{ 30 comments… read them below }

  1. Lamington*

    I work remotely and now I feel disengaged. My manager cancelled all the team weekley meetings and it’s up to me to find out who is working on what. This has get old fast and I feel unvalued as a result

    1. Lisa*

      IM helps a lot, but if you don’t share clients or work with others then you can feel isolated even working in an office. I do, and its torture. I am in the office with everyone, but I could go 8 hours without even a hello. I eat lunch with people, engage on IM, try to get in on conversations about non-work stuff, but I don’t share accounts with people and have all my calls alone. Can you get on work that is shared by others which means you have more opportunities to talk to team members more often???

  2. Manager anonymous*

    And for me as someone who for the first time be working remotely for an extended period of time (4 weeks) this is a great list of how to show engagement.

  3. The Other Dawn*

    I’ve often thought I’d like to work at home, but it’s just so easy to check out because there’s no on there to push me. And I recognize that’s what I need sometimes. Although when the mood strikes, I can dial in and just plow through at ton of work at midnight. I don’t have remote access at this job, but I did at my last job. I loved it, but quickly realized that I need to be in the office most of the time to be productive.

    1. Jamie*

      I’ve seen it work beautifully, but it’s definitely not for everyone. You have to have a position where it makes sense and also the work style and personal temperament for it to be a good fit.

      While it’s great to be able to do in a blizzard, or when too sneezy and drippy to come in, but well enough to work…or when waiting for the plumber…but no way could I do it full time.

      I need the demarcation between work and home – otherwise it’s scope gallop and I’m working all the time. Those boundaries aren’t easy for me in the best of circumstances, but if I can toss in a load of laundry while waiting for data to compile my brain says it’s only fair that I interrupt dinner for a non-essential request.

      I love the flexibility – but I’d be miserable doing it full time – because I wouldn’t be working from home, I’d be living in my makeshift office.

  4. businesslady*

    I’m also happy to see this! I’ve been working (mostly) remotely for over a year now, & while I’ve mostly acclimated, in the beginning I was SUPER paranoid about seeming checked-out. everything you list here makes a lot of sense from my perspective–all of the signs of disengagement you list are things I proactively try to avoid happening, & your suggested fixes are all really effective means of managing remote workers.

  5. Jamie*

    For remote workers I’m a huge fan of measurables. Some things are obvious – remote sales either hit their numbers or not (not that there can’t be other issues) but long projects being done remotely have to have built in check ins or you could be very late in finding out there are issues or it’s just not being done.

    It is really far more important to keep regularly scheduled meetings (whatever time frame makes sense) with remote workers because they can’t just stick their head in your office and without making a point to meet you can go way too long without communicating.

    It’s easy to take for granted how much we stay in the loop just being in the office, hearing snippets of conversation, work talk while waiting for the coffee to brew, and just strong relationships where people like you enough to seek you out to give you a heads up about things that could affect you. All that stuff that happens organically for office workers but remote workers need to work harder to stay in the loop.

  6. JMegan*

    Unrelated to the content of the article, but I think that is my new favourite stock photo. Nothing says “disengaged employee” like rolling your eyes back in your head!

  7. WorkingFromCafeInCA*

    Great points. I’ve been working from home for just over 1 year now and it’s still really challenging- the isolation, the struggle to kick myself into gear, the lack of simple office chatter and productive people in my peripheral.

    My question is, at what point do I know if I’m not cut out for this, or if this is still just the adjustment period? Has anyone been working from home for a while and discovered they love it after a while? What did it take you to get there?

    1. A remote worker*

      Here’s a couple things that have helped me stay sane & engaged:
      – Make sure you make time to chat with co-workers about non-work stuff, or at least informally about work stuff. I’ve got a monthly “happy hour” on a Friday afternoon with some other remote staff. Catching up and making small talk is nice but the best part is learning what’s normal for your co-workers. Like, if you’re having a minor issue that’s not worth raising with your boss, it’s a big relief to know that other people are annoyed by it too. I’ve had so many “oh thank god that’s not just me” moments at those happy hours!
      – Don’t be shy about asking folks in the office to accommodate you. My company has had remote staff for years and still have to remind people to set up ways for us to participate in events, speak into the phone at meetings, etc…it’s not the easiest habit to get into when you’re in the office. Don’t take it personally or feel like you’re annoying the office staff with reminders.
      – I make sure I get dressed (no pajamas or sweats) every morning before turning my computer on, and do some chores at lunchtime so the sink full of dishes isn’t bugging me while I’m “at work.”

    2. KellyK*

      I think a year is long enough to have a good idea whether you’re cut out for it or not, but if you haven’t tried some little changes to combat the feeling of isolation, you might want to do that before throwing in the towel. I like A remote worker’s happy hour idea.

      You also might want to see if there’s a telework center in your area. Here’s a link to some in the DC area: You’re probably more likely to find them in major cities.

      If you don’t have one, you might be able to find a group of people to get together at a cafe or coffee shop with laptops and work away at their various projects to provide that productive vibe you’re looking for. It wouldn’t have to be remote workers at your company, it could be other remote workers, freelancers, or even stay-at-home parents who want to get out of the house to work on their novel.

      For that matter, depending on how far you are from your organization’s location, coming into the office every so often might be helpful too.

  8. Elizabeth West*

    I can work from home but I don’t. After a year of unemployment, I don’t want to sit on the couch every day. I already did that! It is nice when the weather is really bad (snowy or icy) or I’m feeling just sick enough to not want to sit up, but still well enough to do some work, or I have a repair person coming over. Also, if I work from home, I can’t do stair climbs on my breaks. No stairs!

  9. Vicki*

    All three of these apply equally (or better) to in-the-office employees. There’s a bad assumption on the part of many managers that butt-in-chair equals presence-of-mind. That’s a fallacy.

    Item #1 is especially true across the board: You realize that you wouldn’t have any idea what your [remote] employee is working on if you didn’t ask.

    Look around the modern office. Employees are chatting (on line and in person), spending time in the break room, working on something other than work, watching videos, posting to Facebook, talking on the phone, trimming their nails…

    Just because you can see them, doesn’t mean they’re working.
    Just because you can’t see them, doesn’t mean they’re “checked out”.

    1. Anon2*

      Yes, I’m curious how managers have come to assume that “presence in office” = “presence of mind.” I know of all sorts of ways to procrastinate.

      I also agree with you on that those tips apply equally as well to in-office employees. My situation is a little different in that I report to the main office, but my boss is a teleworker. I don’t really have much of a broader team — sure, we do collaborate a little on some technical tasking, but 90% of what I do is between me and the boss. It’s a rather weird feeling, because while I report to the main office every day, I hole up in my office and deal with few people. It’s quite isolating.

      1. Sascha*

        Re: presence in office = presence of mind:

        1. Many people have a hard time seeing past their own point of view – “I’d never be able to focus working from home, so how can my employees?” or “I focus better at the office, so they probably do, too.”

        2. In my experience, managers who are more likely to micro-manage don’t like telework. They feel like they are losing control.

    2. HepHep*

      +1. Totally agree. I’ve been working remotely for over 2 years, with the same company that I’ve been with for nearly 5. I certainly concede it’s not for everyone, and the workplace culture and nature of work informs these situations, but being in the office is no guarantee of good employee engagement.

      1. Sascha*

        Absolutely. I’ve been working from home for nearly 3 years now and both my output and quality of work has been much higher than a few of our former employees who chose to remain in the office, including the one guy who spent hours talking to each employee on our floor, each day. All you had to do was check our ticket system (tech support) and look at the numbers.

        Some days I find it harder to focus at home, and some days I find it harder to focus at the office. But I just have to find strategies to stay focused in either situation.

    3. Jamie*

      I don’t know any manager who assumes presence at work = presence of mind. I think the availability and easy access to jump into whatever is more comfortable for some people.

      I have known managers who don’t like letting others work remotely because they themselves aren’t disciplined when home. If I slacked off and did the bare minimum from home between naps and daytime tv because it was impossible for me to stay focused I would be leery of others as well, if I was closed minded enough to assume everyone works just like me.

      You will have slackers at home and slackers in the office – if you manage properly you will deal with them as issues arise. But people need to start evaluating it as an option (for those who want it) when the position makes sense and the person can be trusted – then try it out.

  10. Kelly*

    The university library I work for is starting to transition to a new library services platform, that will be cloud based. It’s replacing the current one, which is almost 20 years old. One possible benefit could be allowing more people to work from home instead of coming in during bad weather. Of course, it’s up to your supervisor if they would allow that and if you could be as productive at home as you would at work. I don’t see my supervisor going for that – she’s a stickler that our library has to be open if at least 2 staff can make it in and she would be skeptical about our productivity levels. Having that option would be nice, especially if this winter is as nasty as last year’s and we have a repeat of the polar vortex.

    A family member moved down to Arizona from Iowa because it was his wife’s idea. She found a job first working remotely for the same firm. She’s the only representative of the firm in Arizona working out of rented office space. Him and her only see the positives of the move – no winter, lower property taxes, a nicer house than in Iowa, etc. He found a job this past week, but it will be a significant step down for him both title and pay wise. He’s a late 30s/early 40s social worker who was managing his county’s transition to the health care reform leaving to take a job starting from the bottom up. It’s a big risk for both, especially if her employer ends her remote employment, since her income is the larger one.

  11. AnonEMoose*

    This plus the recent post over at Evil HR Lady (August 29 Your Managers Are Preventing Employee Happiness) makes me wonder about how much the issues around managing remote and/or flexible schedule employees are a lack of training on how to manage.

    Is some of it about some managers not being comfortable questioning their assumptions about what makes a good/productive employee, or not being aware they need to do so? Sort of a mental laziness, maybe – “well, this always worked in the past, so I shouldn’t have to change anything about what I’m doing.” “If I can’t see them, how do I know they’re really working…”

    Or maybe pressure on managers to “prove” that their employees are producing, and managers don’t know how to do that with people who aren’t in the office? In an environment where managers have to fight to get – and keep – enough hands to get the work done, I could see that one being a big factor.

    Some of all of the above, maybe?

  12. LJL*

    This is so timely…I have just accepted a new position that would be remote, and I’ve been concerned about seeing disengaged. This is also a great set of guidelines for me as I get adjusted in my new role. Thank you!

  13. Matt*

    The point about “accessibility standards”, returning of phone calls and emails is a really double-edged sword. Remote working is often found in jobs like software development where it’s important to be able to concentrate on a difficult problem for hours without being constantly interrupted. Now one would think that remote working is the optimum for that since it frees the remote worker of all the people walking into the office and wanting something … but for remote workers there’s always a much higher expectation of being available on the phone constantly during their hours, which virtually erases the advantage of working undisturbed. If a remote worker can’t be reached immediately, there’s always the accusation of being anywhere else but not at work. Maybe one daily short status meeting should be scheduled for remote workers and a few hours for undisturbed work put aside …

    1. KellyK*

      That’s a really good point!

      I think for any manager who’s having an issue with calls or emails not being answered, the first thing to do is to ask what’s going on. If the answer is “I shut off my ringer and closed email for 2 hours so I could concentrate on XYZ,” that requires a different approach than “Oh, yeah, I just didn’t get to it.”

      If people need uninterrupted concentration to get their work done, wanting immediate responses to phone and email is kind of counterproductive. At the same time, you do need to be able to get a hold of someone quickly if something actually is urgent. There’s definitely a balancing act there.

  14. Bryce*

    One potential solution is to have remote employees visit the office in person at least once a year. An organization that I worked at in the past invited remote employees to their annual end-of-year staff meeting/party, so office-based folks could meet and greet with the remote folks. Also, since the end of the year was when performance reviews took place, so remote folks got an opportunity to meet with their managers in person for the reviews (which by the way should take place in person if at all possible).

    Better yet, if possible, have remote employees visit quarterly, or even monthly, if possible, with you one-on-one to check in on things. And if possible, have your remote employees visit in person for sensitive things like performance reviews.

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