The American workforce has undergone a seismic shift in the wake of COVID-19. Most businesses are expected to return to some version of normal operations eventually, but the increase in remote employees will continue to affect operations, even after most employees return to working in the office. Without face-to-face interaction, managers have needed to develop new skills for managing remote teams. When it comes to performance, telecommuters present a special challenge. In particular, how do you address and improve the work of underperforming remote employees?
The first thing to assess is the frequency of your communication. For most businesses, a weekly check-in with a team leader should be routine, but daily check-ins allow for managers and teams to be the most aligned. While you shouldn’t surprise remote workers with an unscheduled video call, emails and other communication options can respond to emerging issues between meetings. When communication is too infrequent, remote employees can become disconnected from the daily goals and variable pace that’s more obvious in an office environment. When performance slips and there’s no response from management, a remote employee might get the impression that the official expectations weren’t noticed or aren’t a high priority, making them more likely to repeat the mistake.
Unlike an employee in the office, your remote workers likely have myriad distractions. It can be easy to misunderstand or forget the goals and expectations that were mentioned in a call or video conference. Where misunderstandings might be possible, give your remote employees the benefit of the doubt, and make sure they understand exactly what is expected of them. Some projects naturally involve deadlines and key information being discussed over the phone. Try sending a followup email documenting important expectations, such as requirements and deadlines. Planner and workflow software can also be useful in assigning work with clear deadlines.
Be specific about issues and always invite input
A missed deadline may seem self-explanatory, but it’s important to discuss behavior patterns and important performance incidents. Try to distinguish between the deadlines that actually affect the success of the business versus internal reporting deadlines that may actually be more flexible or even arbitrary. When pressed for time, your best employees will know how to prioritize the work that’s actually critical for the business.
When you’ve identified a problem, especially if it seems to be part of a recurring pattern, make sure to give the remote employee a chance to thoughtfully respond. Employees in the office have more opportunities to express concerns and get your attention, for example when project deadlines seem unrealistic. Without in-person discussion, a remote employee may feel like they’re expected to work unrealistic hours to achieve goals.
Listen to the problems of underperforming remote employees
When remote employees are working from home, they may have excuses involving children and unusual household issues. Offices are designed to have fewer disruptions, but if the building’s fire alarm went off, you wouldn’t penalize employees for the drop in productivity during the evacuation. Productivity shortfalls need to be addressed, but managers also need to make adaptations for the circumstances of remote employees. Loneliness and depression are common problems for remote workers, and without attempting to play the role of therapists, your managers should be genuinely receptive to the needs and challenges of telecommuters. Get to know your employees as more than just workers.
Develop new skills and resources
Your company needs a long term plan for remote workers, addressing the unique challenges and security issues of telecommuting. Managers and individual employees will also need special training. Remote workers may work unusual or inconsistent hours, but productivity should be more important than imitating office schedules and routines. As remote work becomes a long term part of your company, you may adapt benefits packages for upgrading home offices and counseling support. Self-help training and time management resources can also help remote workers improve their own productivity.
Adapt the review process
Performance reviews can provide useful information for quantifying employee engagement. When you adapt the review process for remote workers, you’ll be able to see communication issues and patterns that may be obscured by other differences between on-site and remote employees. As with on-site staff, it’s important to provide positive reinforcement and recognize the achievements of remote employees. It’s easier to demonstrate enthusiasm in person, and a “thank you” email with exclamation points won’t seem as noteworthy as recognition that’s easily possible in the office. Whatever technology solutions may be possible with your company, reviews provide excellent opportunities to better understand and support remote workers.
With underperforming remote employees, the problem can’t always be addressed as easily as issues with on-site staff. Where casual check-ins are routine in the workplace, your managers cannot casually stroll through the home offices of remote employees. The differences require a subtle but significant shift in management philosophy and equipping remote employees to manage their own time more effectively. While there’s no one-size-fits-all solution for remote work, addressing the challenges head-on can build stronger communication channels and a more resilient workforce over time.
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