4 Tips for Managing Telecommuters Well

Do some or all of your staff work remotely? Here are ways to keep things flowing.

• Hire smartly for remote work. Before you negotiate a telework agreement, ask the right questions to increase the likelihood that it’s a good fit. The Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS), for example, has a telecommuting agreement form to be signed by both employee and employer that includes practical details such as the equipment the company will provide and the utilities reimbursed. But it also includes a questionnaire with ample space for write-in answers: “Describe the characteristics and skills that you have that will ensure success.” And: “Describe how you will maintain/enhance communications under this arrangement.”

Put everyone on video. For meetings that are a mix of in-office and at-home people, try putting everyone on video, not just the remote folks. “Rarely do we put people in a room together for a staff meeting in Chicago,” said HIMSS’s Karen Malone. “There might be 20 to 25 people on a conference call, mixing the in-office and out-of-office staff. Sometimes it’s almost easier for everyone to be on WebEx wherever they are, all focusing on the same screen close up.”

• Manage by results. Don’t micromanage with technology. Set clear goals for remote workers rather than keeping tabs on their time via monitoring software and other heavy-handed methods of checking in. No one wants to work for Big Brother.

Listen between the lines. A phone call has to carry a lot more functionality for a remote worker than for someone who’s going to see their boss in a few hours, so be aware of the subtext. If you hear the other person typing, that means they’re multitasking, and you don’t have them 100 percent. If there are changes in background sound, they’re likely in transit, squeezing in the call and splitting their focus while moving from one location to another. If there are announcements in the background, it means they’re in the airport, possibly in a rush. “I’ll say, ‘Are you able to sit down for a minute, or do you have to get through security and get back to me?’” said Five Corners Strategies’ Paul Devlin. “A lot of people don’t want to say no to a manager, or they have trouble getting them on the phone, so they’ll take phone calls at times that aren’t good for them.”

Devlin blocks an hour a week for non-agenda phone calls with each of his staff members to talk about anything they want to — project work, a business situation, their personal life. “That’s their hour for whatever they want to talk about,” Devlin said. “Most of the time they talk about a project, but it also gives me time to do coaching and mentoring I like to do but usually happens organically from working in the same location.”

Nichole Bernier

Nichole Bernier is a writer and editor based in Massachusetts.