Manage to Maximize the Benefits of Remote Employees

Management Expert Mark Murphy Discusses How To Provide Direction And Motivation To Remote And Freelance Employees

July 2013 | Palm Springs, California


Hiring remote employees or project-based, off-site freelancers can be a cost-effective way for businesses to get the talent needed, with a lower risk and lower investment than increasing headcount. Despite the apparent benefits, many business owners struggle to adapt their management styles to this alternative employment arrangement.

Mark Murphy is a New York Times Best-Selling author and the founder of Leadership IQ, a research and consulting firm that leads one of the world’s largest leadership training and employee engagement studies.

Here, Murphy answers questions about how small business owners can become better prepared to manage workers who are not right under the owners’ noses.

What are the most important strategies for managing remote employees?

Connection, or building the right bonds with remote employees, is the biggest challenge managers of remote employees face. Conversations must be meaningful. This means avoiding ritualistic conversation (for example, asking "How's it going?") and instead making conversations purposeful by asking direct questions like “What’s getting in your way?” “What roadblocks are you facing right now?” “What’s stopping you?” “What’s holding you back?” or “What’s frustrating you?”

Keeping employees aligned when they are working remotely is another big challenge managers face. To keep remote workers pulling in the same direction, it’s important to give thought to how you keep them focused and involved. For example, meetings with remote employees and remote teams typically happen on a conference call, and because there is no visual stimuli, after a while people tend to nod off, start checking email, muting out of the call, and doing other work.

You can counter this by creating an objective for every meeting with a “statement of achievement.” This is, quite simply, a single sentence that says "as a result of this conference call we will have achieved the following" Another option is to finish conference calls with a “decision grid.” This grid could consist of a simple 3-column list of what was decided, who's going to do it, and by when.

Keep remote employees involved by asking questions such as, “How would you answer someone who asked about the other ideas we considered, but didn't choose?” “Are there any circumstances under which our current decisions won't work?” and to each person on the call, “If you could create a solution from scratch, would this be it?”

What are some ways business owners can overcome potential communication issues between owners and remote or freelance employees?

Know your communication strengths and combat remote communication limitations. Face-to-face communication allows for two-way interaction, the ability to hear tone of voice and see body language, and the opportunity to quickly “undo” mistakes or misunderstandings. Video conferencing and phone only deliver tone and two-way interaction. Voice mail offers tone of voice, and IM allows two-way interaction. Email is the least desirable form of communication and presents the greatest risk of message misinterpretation. It's also important to avoid emotional language (can’t, not, impossible) that may incite the wrong reaction from remote employees.

What is one of the biggest misconceptions about managing remote or freelance employees?

One perception that managers often get very wrong is that it's the quiet, loner, ruminator types that make the best remote employees. It's actually the proactive, networker types who make the best remote workers. Most jobs in today’s world are interdependent and remote workers must be able to build bridges, build relationships, and feel comfortable reaching out to other people.