The Best Ways to Manage Remote Employees

April 15, 2013

As a small business owner, managing remote employees from a fiscal standpoint is great, but it's also a unique challenge.

Gene Marks, columnist for The New York Times, author and small business owner shares why having a virtual workforce works for his company.

My 10-person company functions completely virtually.  We used to have offices, but I shut them down about eight years ago when it dawned on me that, despite paying rent and incurring overhead, I was sitting there alone a lot of the time because all of my employees were either on-site with clients or working from home.  So now, everyone works remotely.  From a fiscal standpoint, it’s great; but managing remote employees is a unique challenge.  As the company has grown over the years, I’ve made a few mistakes and learned a few lessons.

For example, I’ve learned not to over-manage a remote employee.  I hired Cheryl a few years ago to help with our marketing.  At first, because she was working remotely from her home office, I thought I would have to keep a close eye on everything that she did. That said, I soon learned that giving someone the independence of working on their own really means that you trust them to do what they need to in an unsupervised environment. I didn’t understand this at first and found myself calling, emailing and even using one of our internal monitoring tools to track what she was doing when logged into our network. Eventually, I found this to not only be a waste of time, but potentially harmful to our working relationship.

No one wants to feel like big brother is watching all the time – it creates distrust.  With Cheryl, I learned that giving her specific, quantitative tasks and goals, and then checking in to see how she was doing with those assignments was the best way to supervise her.  In other words:  treat your remote employee like a grown-up and give him or her the chance to execute.

I also learned that giving a remote employee the freedom to work on their own also comes at a cost to them:  availability.  My expectation is that when I call, text or email, I will get a response from them quickly.  And although I wouldn’t call anyone at 9 o’clock at night, I also expect a little more leeway as to when I can call my remote employees, like earlier in the morning or maybe as late as 7 o’clock in the evening.

I think it’s fair that if an employee can create his or her own schedule and not have the boss breathing down their neck, they should at the very least be readily available when I do need to speak with them.  I didn’t mind if Cheryl ran out in the middle of the afternoon to run an errand, I just wanted to be able to reach her and to know that she was getting her work done, whenever she decided to do it.

Some business owners I know require their employees to always be on instant messenger or Skype, which, depending on what that person’s job is, would make sense.  The point is that in order to make the relationship work, a remote employee must always get work done in a timely manner and be available to his or her boss when needed.

Finally, I learned that nothing beats a face-to–face interaction. I make it a point to physically see my employees, either individually or in a group, at least once a month.  This may be at a client’s office or at a Starbucks for lunch, just for an hour so, to catch up on clients and shoot the “you-know-what.”  Managing remote employees is all about balance.  Being too remote is bad, so having some human interaction on a periodic basis can really help.  I’ll admit that this is still very challenging for a few of my employees that are not hyper-local in relation to where I’m based.  I’m still trying to figure out that problem…but eventually, I will.

 Gene Marks is a columnist, author, and small business owner of the Marks Group PC, a ten-person firm that provides sales and marketing technology and consulting services to businesses.

Gene covers issues affecting the small business community for The New York Times, Forbes, Inc. and more.  He’s also a frequent guest on numerous television and radio talk shows. Gene speaks at industry events to help business owners understand trends that will affect their companies.

Gene has written five books on business, his most recent In God We Trust, Everyone Else Pays Cash. Visit http://genemarks.com for more information.