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Checklist for Managing Staff Who Work Remotely

Check out these new rules for keeping remotely based staff on the ball.

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by Larry Dobrow

Work
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Grant Greenberg, PR and communications manager for workspace/business center giant Regus, works under a Miami-based CEO, a global PR chief based in England and a marketing chief who lives in Boulder but is based in Dallas. The 11 individuals he supervises - a social media manager, a freelance writer/consultant and nine staffers divided between two outside PR firms -- are spread out across the United States and Canada. Greenberg himself works in midtown Manhattan. Thus he is unseen by his bosses and his direct reports alike, but still bound to a workday that spans several time zones.

Greenberg's solution works for him and his bosses and charges: To stay connected on a nearly 24/7 basis via instant-messaging programs and to set clear and defined goals, both for himself and for his reports. At the same time, he acknowledges that there remains a disconnect -- in terms of expectations, workflow and much else -- between out-of-office workers and the managers charged with supervising them.

See also: How to Manage a Bad Apple Employee

He's not the only one who feels this way. Managers at midlife may be so used to supervising the employees they can see that they figure the same rules apply to managing from afar. In fact, the guidelines are different. Here are new scenarios that vex managers responsible for supervising out-of-office employees (or remote workers, stay-at-homers, un-co-located peers, or location-independent professionals) and the ways that the most skilled among them have chosen to deal with the headaches.

Put the Right Systems In Place

Scenario: Confusion about schedules, procedures and tech issues prompt out-of-office workers to bombard their in-office peers with S.O.S. requests.

Solution: Put everything in (virtual) writing. Managers of remote workers swear by Google Docs and Google Calendar, which facilitate the creation and maintenance of office-paperwork mainstays like to-do lists and early drafts. There should be a procedures manual for out-of-office workers, similar to the one for in-office workers but with added information about technology and systems support. A shared Dropbox folder provides a file-transmission framework that bypasses clogged e-mailboxes, while Adobe's Echosign assists in the signing of contracts and maintaining the security of important documents. Without tapping such technologies, requests and edits and heaven knows what else tend to get zipped back and forth in email, creating virtual paper jams.

Taking advantage of technology that eases regular, real-time interaction is key. "I insist that all my senior managers get a work BlackBerry handset and that they set their Skype to automatically start when their computer starts," says Sherif Hussein, the Ottawa-based president and creative director of Jinni Communications, which counts Cairo as its base of operations and employs account managers all around the world. "It sounds like stalking, I know, but sometimes it's the only way."

Keep Everybody in the Loop

Scenario: The out-of-sight employee complains about being left out of the feedback loop.

Solution: As much as every manager seeks to provide regular feedback, non-urgent discussions tend to get bumped behind the crisis du jour in the communications queue. To that end, some firms have taken to scheduling mentoring sessions between out-of-office staffers and either their direct supervisor or another higher-up. If in-office employees receive such support, why not extend it out-of-office? "This may seem like a lot of effort, but when you consider turnover costs -- hiring, training and on-boarding a new employee -- it's well worth it," says Melissa Brassfield, CEO of RidiculouslyEfficient.

See also: 9 Things You Absolutely Must Do When Working From Home

Institute Core Hours for Everyone

Scenario: Scheduling conference calls, group hangouts (via Skype, Google+, etc.) or anything else that involves getting more than two employees in a single virtual place at a single time becomes an exercise in frustration.

Solution: Install "core hours," which might be defined as periods during which remote employees agree to be available for calls, consults or anything else. It's one thing to have a set time for weekly meetings, but blocking off a few hours in which spur-of-the-moment virtual gatherings can be scheduled without incident -- "where everyone is awake and online," quips Hussein -- does wonders in terms of flexibility. Core hours can eliminate the guesswork that often comes with attempting to assemble a handful of individuals in diverse locations.

Resist the Urge to Micromanage

Scenario: The out-of-office worker chafes when asked to check in on a daily basis and/or keep his boss apprised of his schedule during the workday.

Solution: Loosen the reins. Many experts believe that micromanaging sucks energy from out-of-the-office workers just as it does from nearby ones. While it might not sit well with type-A managers used to knowing the whereabouts of their team members at all times, they often find consolation in a better work product. "Ultimately, the great thing about remote work is that it is truly, 100-percent results-based," says Kim LaCapria, an editor with Social Media Daily and Inquisitr, who advises managers to give newbie remote workers a sink-or-swim period. "We allow a month at least for calibration, before we decide on a new worker's potential. Sometimes you have to let them 'float' and figure it out, and they usually do."

That's not a consensus opinion, however. John Lee Dumas, the self-dubbed Entrepreneur On Fire, keeps a watchful eye on his three virtual assistants throughout the day, monitoring their activity via Time Doctor's screen-monitoring software. Every 15 minutes, the software takes a screen shot -- which, ideally, reveals to Dumas that his employees are focused on the matter at hand.

He rejects the usual thinking about trust and the evils of micromanaging. "Too much freedom is never a good thing with [virtual assistants]," Dumas says. "They will find shortcuts, become disconnected from the company and vision, and produce less-than-acceptable work as a result." The one caveat for from-afar managers who adhere to this approach: Be sure to let employees know that their screens are being monitored, as finding out on their own can create insurmountable trust issues.