Managing Remote Employees: 5 Tips for Keeping Employees Engaged and Focused

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An employee watches her team manager lead a remote meeting on a laptop.Out of sight is not out of mind when it comes to managing remote employees. Since the concept of telecommuting took off in the 1970s, more American businesses have grown accustomed to maintaining a remote workforce. As a result, leaders today are tasked with mastering unique skills that are best suited for managing teams in multiple locations.

More people are logging in from home. Global Workplace Analytics estimates that currently, some 75 million U.S. employees hold jobs that are well-suited, or at least partially suited to remote work. But ensuring workers have the support and technology they need to be productive, engaged, and focused can be challenging.

A Look at the Remote Employee

The topic of telecommuting has been a point of contention at some companies, resulting in a longtime push-pull relationship between employees and managers. Working from home has been considered a privilege that an employee earns rather than deserves.

Decades of discussion on the advantages and disadvantages of telecommuting largely dissolved in early 2020. The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic quickly created a crisis situation. To help mitigate the spread of the virus, many companies required their office workers to shelter-in-place at home to work until further notice.

COVID-19 Pandemic Speeds Adoption of Remote Work

According to a survey from Clutch, the business insights provider, the percentage of U.S. employees who were working from home five or more days per week jumped substantially in the middle of 2020 — from 17% prior to the pandemic to 44% after. The pandemic is proving to be an unanticipated experiment in widespread remote work. Global Workplace Analytics predicts that corporate adoption rates of remote work will be higher the longer employees are required to work from home.

Managing remote employees is a distinct professional skill that is suddenly in high demand. An effective boss in an office environment may not be equally effective with remote teams that are spread across several continents.

Benefits of Remote Work

Employees prefer working from home for multiple reasons. Flexibility is the biggest bonus. Working from home helps people more easily balance work and family roles. In addition, it doesn’t limit employee location, enabling workers to live further from the office in more affordable communities. Telecommuting is also environmentally friendly, reducing car emissions.

Companies can also achieve operational efficiencies by maintaining remote staff. Telecommuting drives down the overhead costs of maintaining a corporate office, and a remote workforce can boost profitability. Organizations save an average of $11,000 or achieve 21% higher profitability each year per part-time remote employee, according to Forbes.

According to Mohammed Khurrum Bhutta, professor of operations management in the Management Department at Ohio University’s College of Business, “Online tools are increasing productivity among employees and forcing them to communicate more effectively and efficiently.”

Research indicates that teleworkers on average are 35% to 40% more productive than their office counterparts, and have a measured output increase of at least 4.4%. Additionally, higher productivity and performance combine to deepen employee engagement and satisfaction.

Challenges of Remote Work

Remote work is not a complete panacea, however. Employees and employers alike face unique challenges when working remotely. Starting and ending your workday at home has its hurdles. It’s easier to become overworked. Also, a lack of routine can leave room for unnecessary distractions from friends, family, social media, TV, and beyond, according to the website Business Insider.

Managing remote employees can be difficult. Professional isolation can negatively affect well-being and career growth, according to The Brookings Institution, when employees have fewer opportunities to attend a client lunch, network over coffee, attend industry conferences, or engage in other in-person career activities. Additionally, employee engagement can suffer due to fewer opportunities for social interaction and rapport-building with colleagues.

Broadband access is a main driver of productivity for remote workers. While three-quarters of Americans now have high-speed broadband Internet service at home, up dramatically from 1% in 2000 per the Pew Research Center, many rural areas have been excluded.

5 Tips for Effectively Managing Remote Employees

Managers can bridge the gap between themselves and their employees by applying various strategies. The goal is to focus on ways to ensure remote workers remain motivated to produce quality work that achieves both department and company goals.

“Remote work can only truly work if there is a relationship of trust between all parties,” says Ana Rosado Feger, associate professor in the Management Department at Ohio University’s College of Business. “Managers must trust that their employees are following through on their commitments, and employees must trust that their managers are not using the situation to exploit them.”

1. Develop a Culture of Trust

  • Focus on results more than micromanaging
  • Build deeper connections with employees by encouraging team members to share personal preferences, such as favorite TV shows or family events such as the birth of a child
  • Lead with transparency and be straightforward
  • Encourage social interaction through virtual events to boost inclusiveness

2. Set Clear Expectations Built on Achieving Goals Instead of Tracking Hours Worked

  • Show employees what you expect to be done and when
  • Manage expectations and remain focused on goals
  • Ease the transition to remote work by encouraging employees to embrace work-life balance
  • Encourage employees to avoid overworking

3. Promote Engagement Through Regular Meetings

  • Build strong working relationships with employees through predictable meetings on a set schedule
  • Combine meetings with training and coaching programs
  • Lead all-hands discussions on the topics of mental health, meditation, and exercise
  • Encourage each team member to offer suggestions that cover the strengths and weaknesses of existing business processes

4. Use Collaborative Tools, Such as Zoom and Slack

  • Invest in reliable communication tools to help employees know what they need to do, when it needs to be done, and how they can ask for assistance
  • Use video-conferencing technology such as Zoom, Google Hangouts, Microsoft Teams, Skype, or Slack
  • Create a dedicated online space for celebrating special days, company milestones, and community recognition
  • Use video for complex or sensitive conversations to give participants the same visual cues they’d have if they were face-to-face
  • Ensure that technology tools maintain an appropriate level of data security
  • Advise employees to turn off all communication platforms once they’re done with their workdays

5. Build and Adhere to an Open Communication Policy

  • Prepare and orient employees for remote work by offering opportunities to engage and contribute in a variety of ways
  • Let employees know the best time and method to reach you during the workday (video, chat, phone, etc.) and ensure employees share the same set of expectations for communication
  • Monitor tone and inflection to convey feelings that can be lost in other forms of communication such as text, e-mail, or chat
  • Maintain a positive mindset, as it’s much more difficult to read body language remotely

Key Skills for Managing Remote Employees

Leaders who are managing remote employees should possess key skills such as technical, time management, and interpersonal competencies to foster engagement and keep employees focused.

Research from Global Workplace Analytics shows that some of the most effective managers of remote workers have worked at home themselves. These leaders are less likely to be concerned about lost productivity or collaboration opportunities.

Telecommuting has the potential to improve performance, increase employee satisfaction, and boost a business’s bottom line. According to The Brookings Institution, research has found that on average, remote work increases job satisfaction and improves employee retention rates, which helps organizations save on hiring and training costs.

Professionals working to hone their management skills to meet the demands of a growing remote workforce should consider an advanced degree, such as Ohio University’s Online Master of Science in Management. With courses such as Managerial Decisions & Challenges and Managing Individuals and Teams, the program provides multidisciplinary, in-demand knowledge and insight into the modern workforce.

Learn How to Effectively Manage Remote Employees

More companies are expanding their remote workforces as a way to reduce overhead costs, expand operations to cost-effective remote areas, or safeguard their staff during times of crisis. Managing remote employees requires mastering specific skills that are tailored to overseeing off-site teams.

“As we enter the Fourth Industrial Revolution while navigating a worldwide pandemic, we are in a dynamic time when leadership characteristics must evolve for greater personal and professional success,” explains Mary Tucker, professor of management for Ohio University’s College of Business. “Ohio University’s Online Master of Science in Management program is designed to provide each participant with the framework to develop and/or enrich the strategic leadership competencies called for in future-forward leaders.”

Learn more about how Ohio University’s Online Master of Science in Management program can help you pursue your professional goals of leading teams and applying solutions to organizational changes.

Recommended Readings

10 Tips for Employee Retention Strategies
MSM vs. MBA: Which degree is right for you?
What is Performance Management? 4 Key Insights for Encouraging Employees and Teams

Sources:

American Psychological Association, The Future of Remote Work
The Brookings Institution, “Telecommuting Will Likely Continue Long After the Pandemic”
Business Insider, 9 of the Most Challenging Things About Working Remotely, According to People Who Do It
CFO, What COVID-19 Has Revealed About Working Remotely
Clutch, “Team Culture During the COVID-19 Pandemic: New Data”
Forbes, 5 Proven Benefits of Remote Work for Companies
Forbes, Top 15 Tips To Effectively Manage Remote Employees
Harvard Business Review, A Guide to Managing Your (Newly) Remote Workers
Pew Research Center, Internet/Broadband Factsheet
Global Workplace Analytics, “How Many People Could Work From Home”
Global Workplace Analytics, “Telecommuting Statistics”
Global Workplace Analytics, “Work at Home After Covid-19 — Our Forecast”