Effectively Managing Remote Workers

By Katherine Spencer Lee

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The workplace today goes beyond just the walls that surround an office building. According to the International Telework Association and Council, 44.4 million Americans worked from home at least part of the time in 2004, up 7.5% from just one year earlier.

Technology has enabled these employees to perform their jobs effectively from home, on the road and at other off-site locations. While research shows there are many benefits to this flexibility, including reduced absenteeism and increased productivity, managing remote workers, or “teleworkers,” can also present some challenges for supervisors.

You should be aware of the potential pitfalls if this strategy is to benefit your company and employees.

Basic Standards

Not every position lends itself to a teleworking arrangement. For instance, programmers who are customizing a database could, in theory, perform many, if not all, of their duties remotely. However, internal technical support professionals must work on-site to effectively handle desktop troubleshooting and end-user training.

As a result, you need to carefully define the standards for working remotely so they can be applied consistently. Don’t assume that employees already understand the rules; you risk creating feelings of resentment and generating claims of favoritism when some IT staff are allowed to telecommute and others are not.

Also detail the parameters of this type of work arrangement. If employees are working off-site, how quickly do you expect them to respond to e-mails, pages or phone calls? Can they work a flexible schedule or do they need to perform their jobs during specific hours? What technologies will be made available to employees to facilitate working remotely? How many days a week can people telecommute? etc.

The more effort you put into defining requirements such as these early on, the less complicated it will be to supervise people once they are off-site.

Accountability and Trust

Trust is a critical issue when supervising remote workers. Just as micromanagement is not likely to motivate on-site employees, teleworkers should be held accountable for meeting expectations without having to constantly check in.

Goal setting can help ensure projects stay on track and remote workers are truly working. Since many IT initiatives place a heavy emphasis on timelines, budgets and end-results, these factors can easily serve as the basis for performance standards.

A key advantage your management team has when supervising remote workers is that there is usually an extensive document trail to help investigate concerns or problems with an individual’s off-site work. For instance, you can verify that someone logged into the network by a certain time or determine how much development work was completed on a web project by accessing relevant files.

There also are products on the market designed specifically for remote workers, allowing them quick access to work files and software applications while enabling managers to verify productivity when needed.


Perhaps the greatest challenge in managing remote workers is communication. Although many IT professionals rely heavily on PDAs, instant messaging and similar technologies, it’s not uncommon for them to get so caught up in their work that they fail to stay in touch with colleagues and managers.

Lack of informal communication, such as water-cooler discussions, can also hamper working relationships. If colleagues haven’t built rapport, it can lead to challenges when collaborating on projects.

As a leader, you can minimize communication problems by encouraging both managers and teleworkers to engage in frequent discussions within the group, even if it is just to share news that work is on track and scheduled to be completed by deadline.

Supervisors should also make a particular effort to keep telecommuters connected to the company’s mission and goals so they remain invested in their work. Including off-site employees on speakerphone or teleconference during all staff meetings is one easy way to do this.

In addition, managers should encourage remote workers to visit the office on a regular basis. You may suggest that off-site employees stop in once a month or attend particularly extensive planning sessions to gain valuable face time with colleagues.

Teleworking is a practice that is here to stay. Make sure your IT group has clearly outlined how this approach will be managed, including guidelines and recommendations for participation, accountability and communication. You’ll achieve maximum benefit from this option over the long term.

Katherine Spencer Lee is executive director of Robert Half Technology, a provider of IT professionals for initiatives ranging from e-business development and multi-platform systems integration to network engineering and technical support. Robert Half Technology has more than 100 locations in the North America and Europe, and offers online job search services at www.roberthalftechnology.com.