how to manage off-site employees

A reader writes:

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 face time 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, managers sometimes wonder how they’ll know whether work is really getting done, or getting done as efficiently as it would in the office. The answer lies in agreeing up-front 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 – not 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?”, “How are you approaching X?”, and 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 understand of what type of accessibility is expected, and 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 with 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. Doing that will give you a better feel for how the work is really progressing, help you to know whether something is going off-track and you need to intervene, and better equip you to serve as a resource for the staff member.

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 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.

{ 13 comments… read them below }

  1. MaryMary*

    I’d also suggest making sure that you’re accessible as possible to your employees, and setting expectations around how they can contact you. Creating regular times to talk is great, but you don’t want them to hold off on telling you something important until your next weekly meeting. If your role keeps you away from your desk, make sure your calendar is up to date so they know when they can catch you. Let them know if you prefer phone, email, text, or chat. If you have pet peeves around communication (you forget about voicemail and end up checking it once a week at best, or it drives you batty when someone IMs you the second you log in), tell them that too. And if you’re not great about getting through all your email, or returning calls, make an effort. Communication goes both ways.

    1. Mister Pickle*


      I’ve been working remotely from home for several bosses since 2007. It definitely requires a certain amount of discipline on both the employee and mgmt side. The 5 points that AAM outlined need to be respected by both the manager and the remote employee. Point #5 in particular is something where the employee needs to be something of a self-starter. I’ll regularly suggest work items and projects to my mgmt, or volunteer to work on a task – I need to do this or I might find myself with nothing to do.

      Perhaps it goes without saying in this day and age, but some kind of Instant Messaging is critical to working remotely. And my employer has a culture that encourages LOTS of open communication. I may not be at the office, but I still feel extremely connected to my team.

      Honesty and trust are both very important. As a remote employee, I will go out of my way to make sure my mgmt knows what I’m doing, and that everything is on the up-and-up. This is sometimes tedious. But sad to say, I once lost a manager’s trust (over a really dumb miscommunication, alas) and it was never fully repaired. I ended up working for someone else.

      The only thing I would add is that if it’s at all possible, figure out a way to do a face-to-face meeting at least 2 or 3 times a year.

  2. Jake*

    My biggest issue with having an off site manager is that communication is usually delayed.

    With an on site boss I come up with a plan that requires his approval, I set up a time to walk him through the details and answer questions. If he has any additional questions he comes to my office and asks.

    With an offsite boss I send him a plan with a request to schedule time to talk about it. He then reviews the plan without me, has dozens of questions that are already explained in the plan (which normally would take 5 seconds to point out). Now I either send him the answers, which generates more questions, or I call him to explain, which results in a hurried agreement that he won’t remember. Now we get to go back and forth for days on something that normally is resolved in a half hour. It is a huge time sink.

    I know the answer is better communication, but when he is offsite I don’t have as effective methods of communication at my disposal.

    1. Adam V*

      Maybe just request the meeting first, and don’t send him the plan until an hour or so before?

      Obviously this wouldn’t work for some people (“I need to have the plan ASAP so I can get familiar with it!”) but for others, you’re basically saying “I’m ready to show you everything, as soon as you’re ready to see it; if you have immediate questions, you don’t need to call me about them because we’re *just* about to have a meeting; any other questions you still have afterwards, we can answer through email or another phone call”.

  3. WorkingFromCafeInCA*

    +1 Excellent points, especially about sharing ones pet peeves around communication! I’d never though of that, and I think it would be great to share with coworkers, and even friends and family :) (I hate voicemail because my system takes forever to actually play the message).

    1. MaryMary*

      Both of those are my pet peeves. :-) I do check my voicemail promptly, but I hate VMs. I had a client who used to leave me long, detailed VMs that included employees names, SSNs, and dates of birth, hire, and/or termination. I’d have to listen to the damn message four times to get everything (and make wild guesses on spelling). I also worked for a while with an offshore team, and for a while the second I logged in I’d have five or six IMs blinking at me with questions from the offshore foks. I’m not a morning person and it made my twitchy.

      On the other hand, I’ve had several managers who were bad with email. One I had to put AMY: READ THIS ONE NOW in the subject line of email, one perferred text if I needed something urgent, and one would always get voicemails even if he never saw my email. It’s just easier if you make your preferences known instead of waiting for people to figure it out.

  4. Observer*

    I’d add one more thing: Be realistic about your expectations.

    We had one supervisor who was really difficult that way. She drove everyone else nuts, even her colleagues, not just her staff. For instance, if she called her assistant, and she didn’t answer the phone there would be an immediate email “why didn’t you answer my call? Where are you?! blah blah blah.” And it got worse from there. Forget about the possibility that the assistant had gone to the bathroom or the like. The assistant job required a lot of interaction with outsiders – and more often than not interrupting those calls would be a really bad idea. The supervisor knew, too.

    It created two different major problems in terms of management. One was the morale of her staff. People were unhappy and resentful, in a job that absolutely requires an engaged and positive attitude. She lost (or nearly lost) some excellent staff that way. On the other hand, when she did have a legitimate problem, she had no credibility – not with her staff and not with anyone else. And, while she was well liked, and people were fine working with her on a many projects, no one was willing to work with her on dealing with the situation, as they saw her expectations and behavior around this issue as so unreasonable.

  5. Gene*

    even shadowing them for a day

    That could get really awkward for a work at home person. Wasn’t there a long discussion about this sort of thing a while back?

  6. Anon for this*

    Whatever you do, don’t overcompensate by micromanaging the people who DO work in the office with you. I’ve been on the receiving end of this, confirmed with the rest of my in-office coworkers that they were getting it too (so it wasn’t just me having an actual performance problem), and it was miserable for everyone involved.

  7. Lamington*

    our manager’s solution for communication was daily notes woth everyone’s work for the next day. It was too much and sometimes you were unsure what to add. Now is once a week, much better

    1. Nashira*

      Daily work statuses can work, but only in certain offices. It does in mine since we all have the same work tasks over and over, and most are easily quantified by number of items or average time to complete. I usually have so many copies to make, letters to prepare, an hour of data entry to perform, etc. It presents a good chance to see where we are and ask for help when necessary. Or just feel frustrated because each person does the work of 1.5 people – take your pick!

      With less quantifiable work, it would absolutely be crazy making.

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