Managing Remote Workers

Managing remote workers takes skill. It also takes trust. Here's why trust is the most important factor in successfully managing teams through virtual technology.

Managing Remote Workers for the First Time? Read This.

If you're managing remote workers for the first time, you wonder how you'll measure productivity.

Will everyone waste time? Play video games during working hours? Goof off?

Maybe. Does it really matter?

Directive versus Self-Directed Management Styles

When I first became a manager over 25 years ago, I was directive. I ordered people about and demanded to know exactly what everyone was doing and why.

Of course, that backfired. I managed a group of teenage cashiers and customer service associates and they grew mulish and rebellious.

The general manager of the company took me aside and said kindly that I was being an ass and if I didn't cut it out he was going to manage everyone himself.

I thought I knew what it was like to be a good manager. Good managers were bosses, weren't they? They told their workers to go here, do this, and they measured every minute of their productivity.


Good Managers Trust Their Teams

Good managers trust their people to do their jobs. I learned this lesson much later, but fortunately, I learned it well. I learned it from a manager named Joe who took over a group I worked in at a major publishing company.

Joe had amazing people skills and had been a former first-grade teacher. That made him the perfect person to manage me since I often behaved with the maturity of a first-grader.

He didn't lean over my shoulder every day demanding to know what I was doing. Instead, he met weekly with his direct reports, reviewed our goals, complimented our successes, guided our failures, and listened to us but never solved our problems for us.

In other words -- Joe trusted us to behave as professionals, and we did.

Managing Remote Workers Requires Deep Trust

For the past 13 years, I've worked remotely. I've managed editors and writers at as a Group Editor and Senior Writer, often working with over a dozen people a day via remote technology. Later, as the Vice President of Client Strategy for a global marketing agency, I not only worked with remote teams, I worked with teams spanning six time zones, three languages, and multiple skillsets.

In every case, I learned that managing remote workers requires deep trust.

That doesn't mean letting people flounder and hoping they do their best. Instead, it means:

  • Establishing workplace guidelines: These guidelines help everyone produce their best work without constantly checking in with one another. They include setting expectations for work hours, deadlines, and communications.
  • Communication channels and requirements: Communication is important and especially so when people work independently and collaborate using virtual technology. We created expectations around how quickly people were expected to respond to emails, text messages, and Slack or Skype messages. We also set for ourselves "work hours" and "open office hours" when we were available instantly via Slack and Skype. Lastly, our managers made their calendars public, so that we could see when we could schedule meetings and when they were already booked. It made communications go much more smoothly.
  • Set work expectations and project objectives: Establish objectives for projects. Let people have the freedom to complete projects as they see fit but according to an agreed-upon timeline.
  • Accountability: Accountability was a big part of the success we experienced at the global marketing agency because we held one another accountable. Our CEO wasn't above us; he held himself to the same standards as we held one another. That was a big factor in the success of our work. We met weekly to update one another on our work as a group and each of the CEO's direct reports met privately to review projects, ask questions, and alert him of any problems.

Trust but Verify

There's an old saying, "Trust but verify" and managing people using virtual technology requires both trust and verification. This means that yes, you should trust that people are adults and capable and will do the work required of them, but as a manager, you must verify the outcomes.

  • Use technology to monitor work progress. I like using Asana, a project management board. Require everyone to update their projects in a shared system so that all can see progress, deadlines, accomplishments.
  • Maintain clear communications and remain available to employees.
  • Allow for flexibility during this trying time...parents may be juggling computer time with kids, for example, who have to finish their schoolwork online, or with spouses who are also working from home. As long as the work you've assigned gets done, it's fine. Not all work has to be completed in the 9 - 5 window.

We are all in this together and managers must lead by example. Trust that your team knows how, when, what, and why they must work, applaud successful outcomes, and be gentle with yourself and others. Remember: this too shall pass.

And hey, who knows? Maybe you'll find that, like me, you love working virtually and excel as a virtual manager. It could open new doors for you.

For more on the trust factor in management, see 15 Questions about Remote Work, Answered in the Harvard Business Review.

plant and notebook on desk

Making Virtual Teams Work

How do you make a virtual workforce a thriving part of your company?

Many companies need extra help during peak season. Some require specialized skills or a temporary opening filled. In these cases, a remote worker, also known as a virtual worker, telecommuter, or telecommuting freelancer, may be the answer.

So why don't more companies avail themselves of the miracles of technology and find the absolute best person for the job, allowing them to work remotely?

For the past ten years, I've managed virtual teams. I began managing editors and writers for a major website. In that role, I didn't choose who I worked with--I inherited teams from the previous editors. The company had strict working requirements, provided specialized software, and offered clear guidelines and quotas for monthly content.

In this example, a virtual workforce worked very well for the company. Not only did they achieve their revenue goals, but they were able to expand into multiple content niches because they drew from an enormous pool of writers scattered geographically far from their headquarters. They didn't care if you lived within 10 miles or 1,000 miles from headquarters.

How did they achieve what other companies fail to do?

Clarity. Communications. Accountability. These are the hallmarks of happy, healthy virtual teams. Layer in some flexibility and its sister, creativity, and add to it the notion of reliability from both the company and its workforce and you've got a winning recipe for a happy, healthy virtual workforce.

In my latest article for Medium, I distill ten years of virtual management wisdom into an eight-minute read. For those looking to expand operations or improve the talent pool, consider a virtual workforce. Not only can it work well, but it can also work exceptionally well for your productivity, profitability, and service.

Ready? Let's go virtual. Read the full article: How to Build a Healthy, Happy Virtual Workforce.