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.

You can read my advice to this letter-writer over at Daily Worth today.

{ 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

      This.

      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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