3 Simple Tips for Managing Remote Employees

3 Simple Tips for Managing Remote Employees 1000 668 Jason Lauritsen

Regardless of when this pandemic ends (which feels like never to me right now), the way we work will never go back to how it was before.

Sure, offices will open and some people will return to their cubicles, but many won’t.

If there’s one thing we’ve learned about work over the past several months, it’s that work can be done successfully well beyond the walls of the office—sometimes even better.

What this means for how organizations and leaders decide to change policies and reshape office environments is yet to be sorted out. But there is one thing for certain.

We are going to be managing employees who we can’t “see” in the office every day for the indefinite future. Remote work is never going away. In fact, as remote work expert Laurel Farrer put it this week as we discussed this topic as part of a panel, “soon we won’t even call it ‘remote’ work anymore. It will just be ‘work’.”

So, while it may take a while to sort out what this all means in the big picture, there is one thing we can focus on right now that will have an enormous impact on our teams and their ability to perform: We need to get really good at managing remote employees.

Why Do We wonder?

Over the past week, I fielded a survey of several hundred managers asking about their biggest challenges or questions related to managing virtual teams. There were a lot of great insights in the responses (more on that to come).

One group of responders took me back to the days when we used to gather around conference room tables to discuss employee engagement concerns. The challenge they raised sounds something like this:

“It’s hard to know how my team is doing/feeling/working when we are all remote.”

I get it. If you’ve only managed people in person at a traditional work environment throughout your career, you’ve likely come to rely on your ability to observe people around the office as a way to get a “feel” for how they were doing.

So, when you can’t see your people every day, it feels like you are somehow powerless to know what’s going on.
Ironically, this same conversation used to happen around that nostalgic board room table long before “pandemic” was a common word in our vocabulary. Even when we could see our people every day, leaders would find themselves together wondering about how employees were really doing, how they felt about what was happening at work.

My guidance to them then is the same as it is today.

Tips for Managing Remote Employees

Feeling like we don’t have a good handle on how our employees are feeling isn’t a new problem. Remote working arrangements have just made it feel more acute and painful.

Not knowing is definitely problematic. It leads us to make assumptions, and that’s never good because we rarely assume the right things.

If we remember that work is a relationship for employees, then perhaps we can learn from other relationships in our lives where this same issue arises. I’ll use my wife as an example.

On top of trying to survive a pandemic, my wife is running a campaign to be mayor of the suburban community where we live. She’s got a lot going on. Running for office is the equivalent of a giant popularity contest. Being in it requires thick skin and an ability to keep things in perspective.

Angie does a pretty good job of this, but I know there are times when it’s hard and she’s struggling with the stress. But, I don’t always know exactly when. And despite knowing her better than any other human on the planet, when I make any assumption about how she’s feeling, I’m almost always wrong.

When I act on those wrong assumptions, it has sometimes even made things worse. Piling more stress on top of what is already a big pile. So, I try not to assume.

Instead, I do what we should all be doing more often. That brings me to my first tip.

Tips for Managing Remote Employees #1: ASK

When we are wondering about how someone else is doing, we don’t need to make assumptions. We can ask.

This is true for our personal relationships—our significant others, parents, children, friends, neighbors, etc. It’s also true for our employees.

It used to drive me insane when I’d meet with my executive teams and they’d start to speculate about what employees thought about certain things or how they were feeling about others. I am sure they got sick of me saying it, but I used to point to a wall where employees were working on the other side and say, “We don’t need to spend time wondering about this, we can go ask them. They are right over there.”

Perhaps the most fundamental skill we need right now as we try to adjust and adapt to managing in this new distributed and virtual environment is the ability to ask meaningful questions.

Consider questions like:

  • On a scale from 1 to 10, how’s your stress level right now?
  • What makes work hardest for you right now?
  • How do you feel about your work from home set up?
  • What was your biggest win this week—with work or just in general?
  • How can I help make your work day less stressful?

The key is to ask questions that get the employee to reflect and talk about what’s really happening for them. One of my friends shared with me that her boss’s boss recently asked her, “Are you having any fun?” This unexpected question caused her to really pause and reflect on how she’d been approaching her work.

Asking good questions is vital, but it’s not enough by itself. Hence, my next tip.

Tips for Managing Remote Employees #2: LISTEN

Sounds pretty simple, but don’t be fooled.

In the survey results from last week, a number of people lamented about the inability to observe body language when interacting with direct reports and others in the office.

This is certainly a real issue when working remotely. It makes it that much more critical that we pay attention to people and listen to what they are (and aren’t) saying.

I’m not going to give you a lesson on active listening because you’ve likely heard it before (if not, Google it and you’ll find loads of great resources). But, I will offer up a few key suggestions.

  1. Do not multitask. It’s so tempting to check emails while on a video call or meeting. Don’t do it. Shut down any other open windows, applications, or tasks and focus on the person in front of you.
  2. Take notes. Write down what you are hearing and any questions that arise in your mind. When you ask good questions, you should get interesting responses. Writing down important details means you don’t have to try to remember them or hold them in your mind. This frees you to pay attention to not only what’s being said but how it’s being said. Is there trepidation or anxiety behind those words?
  3. Ask the follow-up question. The first response is often the least helpful. Learn to say things like, “tell me more about that” or, “why do you think that is?” The second (or third) question is often when you get to the most important insights.

If you really listen to your people, they will share with you what’s working and what’s not. They will share their challenges with you. They will tell you where they need help.

Which brings us to the last tip.

Tips for Managing Remote Employees #3: ACT

When you ask good questions and really listen to the answers, you should end up with a list of things that you can help. But, that list only matters if you take action.

You don’t have to solve every problem or address every need in the moment. But, you do need to do something to help.

When you take action to support your employees after they’ve shared a problem with you, it builds trust. The more often and consistently you do it, the stronger your relationship will become. They will begin sharing more important concerns with you.

Over time, you won’t have to work as hard at drawing out the issues because your people will know that you care and will help whenever they have a challenge in front of them.

Remote Management Impact in Three Words

This isn’t a new idea, just a refresher of a tried and true approach. Managing and engaging people remotely requires that we get the fundamentals right. There’s nothing more fundamental to fostering a positive relationship with your people than these three words:

Ask. Listen. Act.

These three steps taken regularly and with good intention will help you keep your people engaged and productive through the uncertain and changing times ahead.

P.S. One of the biggest challenges managers identified for managing remote employees is keeping them connected–to each other, to the organization, and to them as their manager. So, with my friends at Waggl, we decided to crowdsource some solutions.  If you click this link, you’ll be asked to share what’s been working for you to keep you feeling connected as a remote worker. You’ll also be able to see and vote for the best ideas submitted by others. Check it out now.  

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