how to make telecommuting work for your team

With the popularity of remote work increasing, you’re likely to start hearing requests to telecommute from your team, if you haven’t already. It can be tough to switch from having a fully on-site team to having some staff members who most days you see only as an avatar in a chat program or a name on an email … and you might worry about how to ensure people are working to the same standard that they did when they were in the office.

But if you’re committed to making telecommuting work for your team, it can turn into a benefit that attracts and retains great employees, more and more of whom want the flexibility that working remotely allows.

Here are five keys that will go a long way toward setting your staff up for remote work.

1. Create a shared set of expectations about what successfully telecommuting looks like. Too often, managers of remote employees don’t spell out their expectations up-front and then end up frustrated when they’re not met. To avoid that, get on the same page right from the start on things like core hours that you want the person to be accessible, responsiveness time, not using telecommuting as a substitute for child care, and so forth.

2. Focus on results. I often hear managers ask how they can hold remote employees accountable and be sure that they’re really spending their time correctly all day (as opposed to spending the day watching daytime TV and cleaning the house). Fundamentally, it comes down to getting really, really clear on what results you need to see from the person in the role, and then paying attention to make sure that you’re receiving them. If you focus on the outcomes you’re looking for from the person’s performance, you’ll know whether the person is delivering what you need – and if they’re not (for any reason, whether it’s because they’re taking advantage of being remote or because they’re just not very good at the work).

3. Trust but verify. With all employees, but especially with remote employees, you want to set up systems that will allow you to see with your own eyes how the work in their realms is going. That might mean anything from joining your employee on a few phone calls to get a sense for how she’s handling certain types of customer requests to reviewing interim data to doing site visits where you get to see her work in action to occasionally checking in with the people who depend on her for their own work and asking how they feel things are going. To explain to your remote employee why you’re doing this, you can say something like, “So that I don’t become out-of-touch, I’m going to join your calls every once in a while to see how things are going in practice and so I can be a better resource to you.”

4. Make sure remote staff don’t feel remote. “Out of sight, out of mind” is not a good management philosophy. Be sensitive to the fact that remote employees can easily start to feel out of the loop and unremembered, and make particular efforts to keep them informed about what’s going on in the organization and on your team, and find creative ways to stay connected and collaborate. (Systems like QuickBase make this easier!)

5. Be thoughtful about what must be done in person. If your team contains some people who are remote and others who aren’t, will your on-site folks end up with all the grunt work that’s easier to do on-site, like answering calls coming into the department, sending out mailings, or other in-person miscellanea? If so, give some thought to whether there are ways to even out the load – perhaps having the remote person take responsibility for some piece of shared grunt work that can be done virtually.

{ 13 comments… read them below }

  1. ThursdaysGeek*

    And, figure out a way for your team to be a team. Make sure they have ways to communicate, and encourage them to talk to each other, via IM, phone, email, something. There is a lot of learning that can be done between people on a team, but only if they are communicating.

    I am on a distributed team. We’re mostly not telecommuting, but we are in several states, and only 1 or 2 in most locations. And I really miss the collaborative learning. Something changes, and it takes a long time for all of us to figure that out. Most of us think we’re doing something wrong for awhile, time is wasted while we’re trying to make something work, and eventually we ask someone else, and they say “oh, that changed last week.” (This JUST happened.) We get emails, but that doesn’t mean everyone realizes the importance. And sometimes we don’t get emails, or not to every one.

    There is also the learning when you SEE how someone else is doing the same or similar task. “Oh, why do you do it that way?” “Wow, I didn’t know the tool did that!” — Those are things that happen while is being done, when people are working together. I don’t know how to make it happen with a distributed team, but everyone can get more efficient when they learn from each other.

    1. Beebs*

      I am struggling with a similar issue. About half of our small team is completely remote and alone, and there are a lot of small nuances that get missed. We do work on different projects but there are many ways we could help each other and collaborate and strengthen the organization, but we can’t seem to figure out how. We could definitely be more efficient and supportive of each other, but the communication channels seem to be out of order.

      1. ThursdaysGeek*

        I’m a software geek, and for a while we were using a webx meeting to do a code reveiw: one of us would show the rest what we were working on, and they could make suggestions. In that, we’d see how others were using our common tool, and we got a bit of the collaboration that is missing.

        If you find other ways to enhance casual communication, in a way that helps us all to be better at our jobs, I’m interested in knowing more. I see the lack more, knowing what it could be if we were together. But, like you, I’m not sure how to make it better.

    2. Anonymoustelecommuter*

      So it is NOT normal then for a team that works on opposite sides of the country, in two divisions in two states (one with one 24/7 culture, and one with an office-bound culture with set office hours, as the result of a merger) to have zero communication practices? I joined a dysfunctional nonprofit this year as a telecommuter (have never telecommuted before) but did not know the extent of the dysfunction. Antiquated equipment, software, and people who actually say, do not call or email and no, we don’t have time to give you feedback. Also, to the extent that there is a place for collaborative discussion, you are told to limit your participation while while simultaneously keeping track of it even though there is no easy way to do so. Thanks for letting me vent!

  2. Sunshine Brite*

    Be welcoming when remote workers do need to come into the office, easy to see signs about where forms are, the bathrooms, etc.

  3. AFT123*

    I’d estimate that about 50% of my company in the US works remote, and I’ve been remote for quite awhile now. I think Alison has some great suggestions. Another thing I would mention that has been great for us is to embrace and sort of force adoption of video chat. Mostly all web conferencing programs have video as an option, and it honestly helps to feel connected, even though everyone kind of hates being on video.

    Also, in response to point #3 about being more active in your employee’s meetings/activities, I 100% agree. I am more connected and in sync with my boss since going remote than I was when I had a boss in the office with me! My remote boss is in a different state, but we are communicating constantly via IM, email, and conferencing, and she participates in a lot of my conference calls with clients. Not just sitting silently either; she knows what is going on, occasionally leads the calls, and always provides input and value. When I am out of the office, she can basically step right in because she is so in-sync. It’s really great, and if it were any other way, I’d be floundering out here on my “island”.

    Another thing a manager can do that may help is to organize a regular virtual team meeting that doesn’t include the manager. I know this sounds strange, but sometimes coworkers won’t come together unless they’re forced to, and just keeping it an open dialogue type meeting really helps with the “team” feeling. This might not apply to all environments, but I think would be especially helpful in environments where some are in an office and some are remote.

    Also, WebEx, Lync, etc. are fantastic. Please implement the right tools. Make sure your people have webcams and know how to use conferencing programs. Make sure that your VPN connection isn’t snail slow. etc.

    1. Elizabeth West*

      Amen for good VPN. And pay enough for your remote employees to afford good internet. DSL is not fast enough for a lot of things anymore. I haven’t had a chance to work from home since I ditched AT&T but judging from how much better everything else works on cable internet, I imagine uploading and working with files on the server will be quite speedy.

  4. Sales Geek*

    My wife and I both work remotely. Our experiences are night (hers) and day (mine). One thing you should NOT do is create a two-tier system of workers like my wife’s employer. Their remote workers do the same job as those in the office but they get a different and — while it’s nit-pickimg — more junior title. Remote workers are really second-class citizens. For example, when her office team goes out for a group lunch remote workers are told to just keep working until the office workers return. The main office is in ski country and it’s not uncommon for the office workers to just leave early on Fridays while remote workers have to pick up the slack.

    Worse yet, when my wife got her review she was slammed for “not having enough impact on the team” which roughly translated to “we don’t see you in the office so we don’t believe you’re working.” She’s looking for other work at this point.

    My manager has a geographically-scattered team and all of us work remotely. She keeps tabs on us by scheduling weekly team calls and bi-weekly one-on-ones which works out pretty well. Company culture seems to make a huge difference…both of us work for very large (world-wide) companies but my wife’s employer is still fixated on being seen rather than getting the job done.

    1. not telling*

      In my opinion and experience, there’s just only so much flexibility that can be offered. If a worker is going to work remotely, then they cannot also have a flexible schedule.

      My company tried to offer both and ended up in total chaos. Managers thought a staff person was working MWF and from home on Tuesday but then they were completely awol all day Tuesday and Wednesday. When the manager finally heard from them again on Thursday it turned out that they had taken flextime on Tuesday to chaperone a kid’s field trip, but had done some work in the evening when no one else was around, and had switched their Wednesday work day with Thursday. It was like this every. week. With a half dozen staff. Nobody ever knew where anyone was or what they were doing.

      Needless to say, there were a lot of deadlines missed. There was duplicated work. There was poor work product that was rushed or incomplete. And there was poor morale from on site workers and managers who were fed up with people who apparently got to make up not just their schedules but their job descriptions and deadlines too. Finally management figured out that if people were going to be allowed to work remotely, they had to have a fixed schedule so that coworkers and managers can schedule meetings, deadlines, etc. accordingly.

      To AAM’s list I want to add: Remote work should never, ever be award for having an approved lifestyle. I.e., it should not be a reward for people who buy homes in the far suburbs or who have kids. And on-site work should not be punishment for those who are child free and choose to live in the city. If the job can be done remotely, then it doesn’t matter where it is done–whether in a suburban tract home or an urban loft or a coffee shop. And it sure as heck doesn’t matter what kind of family the worker has or doesn’t have.

      1. BeenThere*

        This sounds like bad management me to me, remote work and flexible schedules are two issues and you can have both provided management is clear on when everyone absolutely needs to be available.

      2. JBtx*

        I disagree regarding the remote or flexible schedule. My team has both and it works perfectly for us. That just sounds like lack of organization, communication, bad management or all of the above.

        I do agree that it shouldn’t be given only to those who have children, or just live far away, etc.

        I work from home 2 fixed days most weeks. If they need to change, I have to let my mgr know in advance. She can not allow it, but she’s never done that. Also, it depends on what you mean by flexible. I start and end late. My coworker starts and ends early. Unless that deviates or we’re going to be away more than 1 hour, we let the others know and we all keep our calendars up to date.

  5. Carol*

    My company is a small start-up of 10 people including a few PT consultants. The owner works out of his house and one of our sales guys has an office but otherwise the rest of us work remotely. We do meet in a shared office space on a monthly basis for some face to face time with the exception of one team member who lives out of state. My Operations/Client services team of 4 starts the day with a group email with a summary of what we have going on that day, big accounts that are coming due, questions about who needs help with what, etc. It also usually always includes things like how someones ill pet or relative is doing, what the kids are up to, the weather and what our dinner plans are. That continues through the day as one CSR hands off any open issues to another or wraps up their work for the day. I cannot tell you how much of an impact this little task has had on our team. Before this, we were a disconnected group of people who rarely talked outside of our monthly meetings or occasional phone calls working in our silos. Now, we are all very much connected with one another and we truly feel like a team despite not seeing one another very often.
    Without fail, every one of us LOVES our jobs and could not imagine working in an office. For me, it’s about efficiency and not spending hours in traffic. For others it’s about being able to work from home while keeping an eye on their elderly mother who would otherwise likely be in a nursing home, being able to have a good job despite living in the middle of nowhere or being the mom who sees the kids off to school, is there when they get home but able to work the hours in between.

  6. jules*

    As a manager, you should create some time (every week, or every day, depending on size of team) when people can ‘digitally drop in’, to replace the coffee machine/ I-just-met-you-in-the-hallway-and-need-to-chat-for-30-seconds talk. It gives people a way to access you that isn’t too formal, but allows small issues to still reach you. If not, you risk having some people feeling left out, while those who know you better wouldn’t have an issue just dropping you an email.

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