Keeping remote employees engaged can be a difficult task for a small business owner. But when managed well, your off-site employees can be just as productive as the ones you see every day.


by Max Berry


Sometime during the 20th century, the water cooler assumed a crucial position in the American office-it became a trading post not only for gossip and recaps of last night's television shows, but also for ideas and advice. With a growing number of 21st-century employees working remotely, the water cooler is a quieter place, its role more often filled by e-mail and instant messaging, videoconferences and webinars. Trading ideas used to be simpler, but that doesn't mean your small business has to endure a communication breakdown. Here are a few ways to keep your remote employees engaged and the conversation flowing.



Remote Connection
"It's all about staying connected," says management consultant Carol Hacker of managing remote employees. Regular contact via phone, e-mail, VoIP- or instant message is of course necessary for monitoring work flow and hashing out ideas, but members of a team who aren't working side by side need an established forum, one that can be accessed around the clock, on which to collaborate and check in with their colleagues.


Remote access services like those provided by Citrix ( allow for remote workers to securely access and update centrally maintained information from their computers as easily as if they were working in the home office. Microsoft® Office Groove® offers a similar service, along with the capability to share files and create a workspace accessible to every member of your team.


With remote access to company information comes an increased security risk. However a manager chooses to keep his or her employees connected, an annual consultation with an IT specialist will help to ensure that remote connections to sensitive company and client data remain secure.


Being Clear: The Golden Rule
Once a reliable system is in place for remote employees to connect to the central office, a manager needs to set specific protocol for relations between the two entities. Since a manager can't be on-site to monitor remote employees directly, Hacker recommends creating a reference manual for remote workers. The manual should provide detailed summaries of company policy regarding data security and backup, project deadlines, appropriate use of company-issued equipment (especially notebook computers and other portable devices), the frequency with which a remote employee is expected to check in with the manager, and appropriate response times to requests and inquiries from the central office.


As Hacker puts it, "The most critical thing a manager can do is manage expectations." This means delineating, on a project-by-project basis, the objectives, deadlines, and anticipated challenges of every task a remote employee takes on.


Of course, the value of a remote employee's work can't be judged by hours logged in the office. Since they are not able to observe the way a remote employee goes about his or her task, managers must set clear guidelines pointing their employees to the desired end result. Assessing a remote worker's job performance requires a manager to trust the employee to meet company standards using his or her own strategy and technique. "Managers need to measure success by results," says Hacker, "not activity."


Keeping The ‘I' Team
A major component in job satisfaction is working with others toward a common goal. Feeling isolated from the rest of the team can diminish a remote employee's morale and hurt job performance. It is up to the manager to keep a sense of camaraderie and singular purpose among employees, remote and otherwise.


The first thing to remember is that some employees simply aren't cut out for remote work. Either they need supervision to be productive or they simply get listless if they aren't around a surplus of people. Managers looking to hire remotely should address these issues during the interview phase to make sure a new employee can handle the remote environment.


Regularly scheduled face-to-face meetings and social events can stave off the disconnected feeling in remote workers, as can the occasional "just because" call. "Don't always call remote employees when there's big news," advises Hacker. "Call to check in." Informal gestures like this quash the potential for a Charlie's Angels dynamic, in which a recognizably named-but eternally unseen-leader provides instructions only when necessary, and only by telephone.


But the opposite tack can be problematic as well. Hacker warns of becoming a "helicopter manager," an employer who compensates for a lack of face time by checking in too often, hovering from afar. This can be just as damaging as infrequent or impersonal contact. "It speaks to a manager not trusting his or her employees," says Hacker. "If you do that, you're going to alienate your best people."


Of course, employing remote workers also offers myriad benefits to employees, managers, and clients. A satellite office in a different time zone means staggered hours to help meet customer needs. A prospective employee who would have faced a long commute to a company's central office may be closer to a satellite office or, if both manager and worker are okay with the idea, may even be willing to telecommute. Remote offices with small staffs appeal to workers who prefer quiet and detest interruptions. And this is to say nothing of what working remotely can do for an employee's confidence. "Remote employees have the ability to approach their work according to their own strength and preferences," says Hacker. "They're almost entrepreneurs."

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