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Performance management for remote workers

March 23, 2018

When you’re in the same room as your employees, providing feedback or asking a question can be simple and straightforward. You make eye contact, tap them on the shoulder, or maybe finally unplug your earbuds and walk to their desk. You can gauge their response in person—read their body language because they’re just a few feet away from you.

But what if your teammate is working remotely? Providing feedback can easily go astray. Your worker is eagerly waiting for a response from you on Slack, terrified her work has fallen short, but can’t imagine why. She sees the green dot indicating that you’re online. It’s 4 pm, almost the end of the day, but not quite. She’s wondering where you are. Should she email you, call you, or text you? Maybe you had an emergency? Cue the anxiety from the lack of communication.

Communication for remote employees can be a bit tricky, even with access to technology like email, Slack, and Skype. But it’s become one of the vital skills the 43% of the U.S. workforce who currently work remotely have had to learn. Subsequently, it’s one that their managers need to learn as well.

The key is getting comfortable with technology because communication literally depends on it. "From the ubiquitous e-mail to how to have meetings, everything is mediated through technology," says Kevin Eikenberry, founder of The Kevin Eikenberry Group and co-founder of the Remote Leadership Institute in Indianapolis. "We have to figure out how we're going to work together and what we can expect from each other."

Remote work is here to stay, with a 115% increase over the last 10 years. For good reason, too: employees are happier, better work-life balance and companies save real estate costs. That means managing remote workers is a skill every manager will have to learn -- if it isn’t one already. Here are some tried and true tips on managing remote workers.

To effectively manage remote workers, you need to:

1. Set expectations from the onset.

2. Schedule regular one-on-ones.

3. Give constant feedback.

4. Ask for status updates.

5. Have trust in your employee.

Set expectations from the onset.

As a manager you should already be doing this, but make sure nothing falls through the cracks. You and your workers should be on the same (virtual) page. When employees know what to expect, they can perform accordingly. One of the biggest problems remote workers have is understanding what their parameters of work are. Unlike office workers, remote workers can’t learn from just observing their coworkers and manager, and without direction will have a much steeper learning curve to knowing what’s expected of them. A lot of things that seem obvious or are learned as you go in an office just will not be communicated to a remote employee without a lot of communication. Clearly define the requirements, from the beginning. The best way to onboard a remote employee is going overboard in terms of how much information you give them. What’s the daily schedule? The start and end times? Are they flexible? Do you get an hour for lunch? What’s the best way to communicate: Phone, video conferences, Slack, email? Are there regular check-ins? (Hint: There should be.)

Schedule regular one-on-ones.

Checking in regularly keeps both of you updated on the progress and expectations. When you have virtual workers, checking in regularly helps facilitate feedback and build rapport directly with your employee. Only having yearly reviews isn’t enough(even in a non-remote setting). It’s nearly impossible to remember a year’s worth of work and funnel the feedback into a single meeting.Having regular one-on-ones will keep you updated throughout the year, which means, one, your performance review will be much more well-informed, and two, will give employees anopportunity to speak directly to youabout any successes or problems they might have.

Employees are hungry for feedback, and having your undivided attention is important for them -- even if it’s only 30 minutes or so over Skype or over the phone.

Remember to take notes after the meeting of any issues that need to be addressed or were brought up, and appropriate action items. To a manager, these things can too easily be buried and forgotten when the person isn’t in view, but we guarantee that they’re at the forefront of a remote worker’s mind. We recommend taking notes before and encouraging your employee to make a schedule for the meeting as well -- if you can do it through a shared platform, so you as a manager can keep track of your notes and keep an eye on your direct reports’ notes, all the better.

Give constant feedback.

Being clear about feedback means your remote workers won’t over analyze your communication to understand how you’re feeling about their work. It’s all about the flow of conversation amongst coworkers and managers. Be in the moment, but remember that a remote worker does not have the benefit of your body language, tone of voice, or facial expressions to help them further understand what you’re conveying. Think of  your typical Slack conversation: What’s the undertone? Is communication open and clear? Are people talking (or typing) over each other? If this was your only communication in your office, do you believe it would be enough?

You want praise and criticism to flow freely amongst coworkers and managers, but you want to prioritize clarity in these messages. Be specific about what’s working and what’s not working. When you have negative feedback, make sure you discuss it directly with the person and not in a group forum.

Ask for status updates.

Encouraging status updates means you and your remote workers always have something to refer back to. Ask employees to keep a weekly log of their work. That way, both parties can keep track of what’s getting done. Even if you don’t take a look at the log every day, you’ll be able to see the progress in an organized manner.

It’s also a helpful resource for both of you to reference during one-on-one evaluations. As a manager, it keeps you from overlooking their accomplishments while also keeping workers accountable.

Keeping an open conversation with a balance of regular one-on-ones, constant feedback and status updates will stop remote workers from feeling lost in their work and taken for granted.

Have trust in your employees.

Your remote workers are trusting you to be open and honest with them -- be sure to do the same. Managers might feel that workers are slacking simply because they’re out of sight. Don’t assume. If an employee isn’t responsive or meeting a deadline, she might be overwhelmed or have some personal issues going on, but that’s hard to know when she’s not in the same room. So remember to keep the communication going and give them the benefit of the doubt—it ultimately boosts company morale, and isn’t that what we all want in our workplaces?

One of the best ways to do performance management for remote workers is to use a platform devoted to performance management. Lattice understands performance management for remote workers, with a few remote workers at the company itself, and several customers with remote workers on the platform. In fact, it’s rare to have a customer that doesn’t have at least one remote worker -- and some even have an all remote workforce.

And it’s easy to see why -- Lattice provides products correlated with the above -- 1:1s, status updates, feedback, and goals -- all in one system. Performance management for remote workers needs a little extra thought and work, but with the right tools, it can be simple and straightforward for both the manager and the employee.