How to Ensure a Remote Employee is Actually Working

remote worker actually working

Working Hard or Hardly Working?


It’s a question we all ask ourselves.  Telecommuting is no longer a “new” thing.  For many companies, large and small, more and more employees work from home, either occasionally, or on a regular basis.  All you need is an internet connection.  But supervising these remote employees presents challenges to you as a manager because, well, you can’t see them to verify they’re actually working.  And when you can’t see your staff, not only does it make it harder to evaluate their performance, but it becomes infinitely more difficult to get a handle on their skills, working hours and efficiency.  How can you tell if a remote employee is actually working?  Are they working hard, or are they hardly working?  It is a reasonable concern, and one that many managers share.  We explore the dilemma of letting employees work remotely HERE.  Ultimately, the issue is about productivity and performance, just as much as it is an issue about accountability.

RELATED: Work From Home Employees: A Management Dilemma

Working Remotely Is Great, But…

Let’s all be honest with each other.  Working remotely is great.  No nasty traffic jams to deal with and you don’t have to go outside if the weather is bad.  Personally, I feel I’m about twice as productive when I work remotely because I have fewer distractions as compared to being in the office, and just being more relaxed helps me concentrate more.  But I do go into my office regularly because my employees need my support, and it’s easier to provide that when they sit across the desk from me.  It also helps me get some time to see how they are working with one another.

RELATED: Being Visible to Your Employees

But when it comes to our employees working remote, that’s another story.  There are some obvious things we’re all thinking about right now.  For instance:

  1.  Is it wrong to worry about certain employees more than others, in terms of remaining productive when not in the office where we can see them?
  2. Won’t some employees simply take advantage of working remotely – starting late, leaving early, not really doing much at all, etc.?
  3. Does ‘working from home’ on Friday really mean ‘getting an early start to the fishing trip’ with his buddies?
  4. Is he/she really able to be productive when they’re not with their team?
  5. Will our other employees feel that someone is getting special treatment?

All of these are fair questions.  The good news is that most of your employees are going to get their jobs done and in many cases, be more productive than if they were in the office because of the reduced interruptions.  But whether it’s a matter of taking advantage of the situation, or simply having difficulty working in isolation from their cohort, there are certainly times when it can be an issue.


Four Essentials of Managing Remote Employees

There are four basic things you need to do to help minimize the concern and risk of having remote workers, in terms of maintaining their workload or simply taking advantage of not being in the office.

Rule #1: The “Policy” Should Be Clear

Whether written or informal, your policy and expectations should be clear to your employees.  If ALL employees are ‘allowed’ to work remotely from time to time, then ALL employees should equally be allowed to work remotely from time to time.  If your work really requires employees to be in the office, with limited exception, the exceptions should be clear and fair.  Finally, if you have a situation where an employee works remotely on a regular, or permanent basis, the circumstances should be clear to your other staffers, so there is no confusion or perceived preferential treatment.  The last thing you want is for one employee to wonder why he’s fighting back road rage every morning when the person in the next cubicle is hardly there.

Rule #2: Regular One On Ones Are a Must

We talk a lot about One on One meetings here at MRH, because they offer a simple and effective way to maintain alignment with your employees.  (You can download our free One on One coaching template HERE) But when it comes to remote and virtual staff, these meetings are not optional for you.  They help you understand what the employee is doing, challenges they’re having and gives you a chance to evaluate workload. Generally speaking, if the workload is reasonable and actions are being completed, you can have confidence he or she is staying on task.  If the employee is struggling because they are separated from their team, regular one on ones should be sufficient for addressing issues, and the employee will likely tell you of their difficulties.  However, if you are concerned that your remote employee is not working as they should be, one on ones also give you a chance to assign work and follow up on the previous week’s actions.

Rule #3 Set Clear Deliverables Each Week

Another good practice for managing remote workers is to set clear expectations or deliverables each week.  Even if you have projects that last months, employees should be able to furnish some sort of ‘evidence’ of their efforts that week.  Maybe it’s a cost analysis you asked them to do during your last one on one.  Or, perhaps you ask for a weekly report with key metrics to be included.  Find something that works for you and request that remote employees provide this to you.

Rule #4 Set Core Hours for the Whole Team

Finally, set core work hours for your team.  When you have remote employees, who may very well be in different time zones, set a particular set of hours that employees must be ‘on the job.’  In my case, I’ve set my core hours as 9AM to 3PM.  For employees in different time zones, they know to be available during these times, so that there is sufficient collaboration across the team.  They can choose which remaining hours of they day they work – start early, or stay late.


Strategies for Managing Remote Workers if There is Real Concern

Some employees will simply struggle – they’re away from you, away from the team, and may have difficulty communicating.  And while we never want to think about it, some employees will take advantage of working remotely.   There are distractions such as the TV, family, or even the weather (Ahem: “It’s so nice out, I just want to sit on the porch and read.”)

Some of the Signs of Performance Concerns:

  • Deadlines are missed
  • Quality of work misses the target
  • Infrequent or sporadic communication
  • Abnormally frequent personal appointments
  • Unavailable when they should be


It’s not a witch hunt, but there will certainly be times where your suspicions are raised.  What can you do if you really have concerns?  If you feel it is an issue that needs attention but you’re not ready to have that performance discussion, here are some strategies to help you confirm there is an issue, and reset expectations.

Symptom 1: Skimping Out A Little Early or Showing Up Late

Strategy: Schedule Meetings as “Inconvenient” Times

If you have concerns about a remote worker’s productivity, you sometimes need to set expectations.  Are they jumping on Instant Messenger a little later than they should?  Cutting out early every day? Schedule meetings with them at times that address this.  No one likes a 4 PM meeting, but if you are concerned the employee is cutting out early every day or is otherwise not putting in their time, a late afternoon (or early morning) meeting will get people’s attention.  If the employee misses these meetings, it helps you document a performance issue.

Symptom 2: Poor Responsiveness

Strategy: Make Unplanned Calls

The element of surprise doesn’t just make for a horror film.  If you’re concerned that an employee may be a little “too” unresponsive when they should be available, do not hesitate to call your employees during working hours when they should be on the clock.  Of course the call should have a purpose, but a simple, spontaneous call at 2:30 in the afternoon may validate your suspicion that he or she is actually on the golf course.

Symptom 3: Frequent Fridays at Home

Strategy: Say “No” From Time to Time

Sometimes, it’s appropriate to say ‘No.’  I had an employee who I knew was an avid skier and would often work remote on a Friday or Monday to maximize his time on the slopes over the weekend.  A few years ago, this particular employee took a number of trips between December and March.  He was a good employee and good at his job, so I was ok when this particular staffer asked to work remote on occasion.  But then there came a 3-week stretch during which he had been worked remotely a couple of days each week.   When he asked to work a few more days remotely for a 4th straight week, I said no.  While I knew he would get his work done, I was more concerned that his team members and colleagues were getting frustrated by his absence.  We were in the middle of a critical phase of a project, so when he was away, it made collaboration with him harder.

Symptom 4: Missed Deadlines or Issues With Quality of Work

Strategy: Increased Communication

Particularly for employees who are remote full-time, communication can be especially difficult.  If you find an employee is struggling to meet deadlines, or the quality of work is not to expectation, there are two possible causes.  First, they may simply not be getting their job done, which you should be able to determine through one on one conversations.  The second, is that their remote work situation is  difficult for them.  Realize that these employees only get communication through emails and phone calls.  Many full-time remote staff members of mine often describe themselves a ‘feeling on an island’ because they are so detached.  To help address this, increase your communication.  Make sure email distributions lists are accurate.  Schedule more frequent phone calls, and spend the budget to have them travel to be with the team from time to time.

RELATED: How to Manage and Overseas Team

Finally, A Formal Conversation

If by doing these things you are still concerned that a staffer is not fulfilling his or her duties, or is otherwise struggling, it’s time to have a conversation.  When confronting a performance issue when the issue pertains to the fact that they are away from you, make sure you have evidence and specific examples.  You may want to get input from others, to validate some of your concerns.  If your peers and employees all say “Yeah, Bob is really hard to get in touch with later in the day” your observations may be right.  Start by asking the employee how they feel they’re doing.  Here are some questions you might want to ask to get the conversation started:

  1. How do you think you are doing?
  2. Do you struggle focusing when remote?
  3. Are there any communication challenges you’re dealing with?
  4. Was the deadline unclear for that task?
  5. Do you feel you’re part of a team?
  6. What are your typical working hours?

Managing a remote employee or a remote team can certainly be challenging.  But you can put performance concerns to rest by knowing the signs and how to address each situation.

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