Out of office: How to set up and manage employees working remotely

Research suggests that employees who drag themselves into the office Monday to Friday might not be as engaged or innovative as those who spend one or two days a week working remotely.

In fact, a recent US workplace survey by Gensler found that the optimal amount of time for employees to spend in the office each week is not five, but three and a half days.

The survey claims that the most innovative employees spend an average of 74% of their work week in the office, compared to less innovative employees at 86%. Perhaps this can be explained by the fact that employees who spend 80% or more of their time in the office report lower levels of job satisfaction and find less meaning in their work – hardly an atmosphere conducive to innovation.

So how do you set up and manage out-of-office employees to help them and ensure they achieve desired outcomes? It all comes down to the three Cs – connectivity, communication and collaboration.

Technology and social support

ABS data reveals almost one-third (3.5 million) of employed Australians regularly work from home. But while there’s certainly a lot to be said about zero commute time, the lack of social interaction can be demotivating, according to Josephine Palermo, who has extensive experience in change management and a Ph.D. in Organisational Psychology.

Project management software with a Kanban board, such as Jira, Trello and Airtable, can offer an all-in-one solution when setting up a remote workforce, making it easier for managers to assign tasks, track outcomes and visualise workflows while facilitating communication, brainstorming and collaboration across teams.

“Just because someone’s working remotely, they’ll still want to be involved in co-creating an idea or coming up with a strategy, so you need to be able to replicate everything you do face-to-face in an online way,” Palermo says.

“As a manager, you have to think, ‘How are they going to be involved in the team process?’ or ‘How are they going to feel like they belong to the team?’ One way to do this is by setting up team chats or private pages on social media where you encourage employees to talk about themselves as well as work.”

In terms of hours worked, Palermo says that can all be very flexible, as long as you set clear expectations and have some kind of collaborative communication across the team.

“Again, there are a lot of software solutions that will give you the ability to manage expectations and collaborate as a team,” she says. “But even a simple shared calendar, where people input details about where and when they’ll be working, can make things a lot easier for everyone.”

Where possible, Palermo encourages regular communication via video technology, such as Skype, Zoom or FaceTime, as it’s important to be able to see and interact with team members face-to-face, as you would in the office.

“I couldn’t imagine having a long-term relationship with a team or staff member without seeing them, so I think the visual aspect is very important,” she says.

Managing remote teams

According to Palermo, most office roles are suited to having people work at least partly from home, but frequent communication is key.

“I have weekly one-on-ones with all my staff where we talk about not only the program of work or the outcomes that we’re trying to achieve but also how they’re feeling about work, how they’re feeling about me, their team and the organisation,” she says.

“We talk about their development goals and opportunities, I might do some coaching or give them some feedback on some of those things, if appropriate, and it’s an opportunity for them to perhaps even address their learning needs.”

When it comes to implementing systems and processes that keep people motivated and accountable, Palermo says the three most important aspects are:

  1. Setting shared goals: What the employee wants to achieve over the next three, six or 12 months.
  2. Putting shared plans in place: Breaking bigger goals down into incremental steps or tasks that can be assessed every one to two months, and determining what support the employee needs to achieve the agreed deliverables.
  3. Tracking results and outcomes: Collaborative software (such as Asana or  Basecamp) can be used by both organisations and employees to visualise and measure outputs and achievements.

Focus on outputs, not inputs

When managing a remote workforce, perhaps the most important thing to remember is that it’s not about an employee’s ‘inputs’ – for example, the number of hours they log in each day – but the quality of their outputs or outcomes.

“You can’t have staff working remotely and then try to control their inputs, because it just doesn’t work,” Palermo says. “It leads people to feeling like they’re being watched and micromanaged, and nobody likes that. Nobody feels motivated with that.

“What you’ve got to do is allow people to create their own best work conditions – and it doesn’t matter if their best work conditions don’t match what you think they are, as long as they’re achieving for you.”

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