11 Rules for Supervising Remote Employees

—Amy M. Gardner

Last week we shared 11 Rules You Need to Know for Working Remotely, whether occasionally or full-time.  As we noted, 70% of workers around the world are remote at least one day per week, and more than 50% work remotely at least half of the time.  That means that more and more managers now supervise people working remotely. Whether you supervise employees who work remotely once in a while or people who are hired specifically to work remotely every day, the task requires different considerations – and often being more intentional – than supervising people you see every day.  As I shared last week, I’ve worked remotely full-time for about four years in various environments, remotely 10-30% of the time for about eight years, and have been location-independent for the last year. Having been supervised by staff both in a physical office and who were also remote, and having supervised employees who were always or partially remote, I’ve seen it all in terms of what to do . . . and what not to do.  Here are 11 rules to make managing remote employees better for everyone.

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Rule 1:  Establish clear remote work policies.  Last week I shared why remote employees need to be flexible.  While supervisors need to be flexible with remote employees as well, they also need to establish clear policies.  A “case by case basis” approach might sound good in theory, but it can backfire when one employee’s crisis is enough to warrant being allowed to work from home and another’s doesn’t, or when one employee’s desired remote location is acceptable and another’s isn’t.

When formulating guidelines on remote work (or how you will interpret and apply your employer’s policies), consider your concerns.  Is it that the employee won’t actually be working?  Hire carefully, set clear expectations, decide in advance how you’ll evaluate productivity for everyone (remote and not), and agree to reevaluate agreements quarterly.  Are you concerned that someone will work different hours than the office?  Set a default policy for expected hours.  Do you worry that remote employees will do less good work?  Again, hire carefully and reevaluate quarterly.  

Think through those concerns and come up with a set of guidelines in consultation with the people you supervise and who supervise you.  As issues come up, employees won’t assume you’re just winging it and that the answer depends on your mood, and you won’t risk agreeing to something only to be overruled.  When policies are clear, those who don’t work remotely also won’t wonder if remote employees receive more favorable treatment.

Rule 2: Don’t favor one group of employees over another. While people who work remotely likely understand they won’t have the same facetime with you, they shouldn’t feel as though you’re more invested in the careers of the employees you see every day.  Make an extra effort by scheduling their one-on-ones for longer than the ones you have with in-office employees (since they won’t have the same access to you, no matter how hard you try), call them just to catch up, and prioritize their calls and emails since if their questions are urgent, they don’t have the same opportunity to just find you in person.

Rule 3:  Use video instead of phone calls for meetings involving employees working remotely.  We all know that being able to see people and their body language is much more helpful than just a voice on the other side of the phone.  And while remote employees might prefer on some level to not have to be video ready, using video ensures that everyone is engaged, makes you more likely to remember to call on remote colleagues, and helps build relationships.

Rule 4:  Decide what to use for day-to-day communication and for calls/meetings and your back-up plan and stick to them.  Whether you use Slack or IMs, Zoom, Skype, Google Hangouts, Facetime, or really anything else, you will have tech issues at some point.  Don’t constantly switch systems, leaving everyone scrambling to download and learn a new system on the spot.  Have a back-up plan – a designated call-in number if video isn’t working, for example – and continue with the meeting only once everyone is on.

Rule 5:  Keep time zones in mind when scheduling meetings or calls.  Even if employees work the same hours, try to avoid scheduling meetings during the natural lunch time for employees in other time zones.  It’s also better to avoid scheduling in such a way that meetings will always start late (if, for example, another meeting in the same conference room always goes over, meaning you’ll have remote employees waiting for the meeting to start and not knowing what’s going on).

Rule 6:  Consider the physical set up of offices and conference rooms.  If people on video are looking down on conference rooms, for example, it’s hard for them to feel engaged and part of the team.  Depending on the size of the room and of the group, making remote employees visible on video from a screen (or even a laptop or tablet) set on the conference table can be better than a screen high above the room.  If you FaceTime with remote employees, don’t rest your phone on your keyboard so they have a clear view up your nose if you type notes on your computer (which also causes them to hear the keyboard sounds).

Rule 7:  To aid meeting participation by remote employees, consider a “no mute” rule and call on remote employees early.  Yes, there are times someone will call in from an airport gate and you’ll want them to use mute.  But not using it as a default will enable better participation from everyone.  (A coworker once told me this rule would mean people in the main office would hear remote workers coughing, typing notes, etc.  I responded that everyone who was remote heard all of those noises from the conference room and he was astounded – it had never occurred to him.)  Tolerate a little extra noise in the background if you can and adopt “no mute” as the default.  It will avoid the “you’re on mute!” delays, and help conversation flow more smoothly.     

It also helps to call on remote employees early in brainstorming sessions or other meetings, rather than going around the room and then calling on the remote employees last.  Being last sets them up as tie breakers, doesn’t give them the chance to present their ideas before opinions have coalesced, and conveys that they’re an afterthought.

Rule 8:  Make sure employees allowed to work remotely have the equipment they need.  It may cost more to purchase an extra printer for their house, and you need to make sure you’re acting within the policies at your firm/organization.  But ultimately you will save time for remote staff and the in-office staff scrambling to help them if you make sure everyone has what they need to work remotely. 

Rule 9:  Build relationships.  Get your entire team together in person, even though it will cost more if they aren’t all in the same city.  Give lots of notice for in-person events so those who work remotely even occasionally are sure to schedule accordingly.  Likewise, take advantage of times when everyone is in the office for more than just work projects.  Even just all leaving in the afternoon for 30 minutes to get ice cream or coffee – the things you normally do with coworkers down the hall – can make a difference.

A great way to build relationships is to include some sort of “joys and concerns” time in one-on-ones and team meetings.  Questions that mimic the watercooler conversations remote employees miss out on (“what are you doing this weekend?”) can be helpful, but deeper questions (“what’s something you’re proud of?” or “what is your favorite summer memory?”) can build camaraderie and help everyone feel more connected.

I once asked a team I led to share something no one on the team knew about them, and a woman shared that she had failed her first driving test.  It turned out that more than half the team had failed their driver’s license tests, too. That might not be so remarkable, except that team members had been raised on three different continents, had a 20 year age range, ran the entire spectrum of political and religious views, and were only in the same room a few hours each month.  That simple question – and everyone’s willingness to share openly – helped us have a good laugh (we were glad we weren’t bus drivers) and get to know each other on a much deeper level than “how is everyone today?” and jumping into the agenda.

If this doesn’t come easily for you, use a resource like Power Questions: Build Relationships, Win New Business, and Influence Others or Quick Meeting Openers for Busy Managers.  Or, rotate the responsibility among team members to come up with different “temperature checks” to see how everyone on the team is doing and to build rapport.

Rule 10:  Watch your language.  It’s not a “team lunch” on a day when one person works remotely.  It’s not an “all office” breakfast unless you’re shipping donuts to the people who are remote.  People don’t “get” to work remotely if it’s a promised job benefit (especially if they are working remotely to care for a sick family member, etc.).  And while it should go without saying, be careful to not let your language undercut remote employees, even with comments intended as humorous. 

One of my clients who held a remote position found that if she didn’t answer the phone on the first or second ring when the boss called, he would ask (even in front of her coworkers) “Am I interrupting you?,” “Are you out having fun?” or “Were you with your kids?” The undercutting comments hurt her standing and their relationship, and she ultimately left.

Be careful, too, about what you say in conference rooms – you never know when someone might have dialed into a video link or phone link early, left the line open, and stepped out of the room.

Rule 11:  Finally, model the behavior you want to see.  If you supervise employees who work remotely, it can be helpful to do so occasionally to understand their perspective.  Is the conference room video camera dirty?  Is it impossible to get a prompt response from accounting if you can’t go to their office? 

When you do work remotely, follow the policies you want everyone else to follow.  If you don’t want staff loading their dishwashers during calls or joining a meeting from a hotel pool, don’t do it yourself.  Living within the same policies will help you better relate to the employees who work remotely and help you see whether they’re workable.

If you work remotely, what rules do you wish your supervisor followed?  And if you supervise employees who work remotely, what would you add?

Amy M. Gardner is a certified professional coach with Apochromatik specializing in career and career transition coaching.  Amy is a former Big Law associate, partner at a mid-size law firm, and dean of students at a top 5 law school. Today she works with lawyers and other high-achieving professionals to build the career and life they want. Contact Amy directly at amy@apochromatik.com.