How to successfully manage remote employees

Written on May 16, 2017

By Jessica Salerno, OSCPA content manager

The option of working remotely can mean more flexibility along with fewer in-office distractions, making for happier employees. But while this arrangement allows more freedom on the employee’s side, managers still have to ensure their remote staff are not only productive, but feel part of the team.

Dawn Brolin, CPA, owner of Powerful Accounting, went with a remote hire for her first employee at the employee’s request. The arrangement worked out great for both sides; so well, in fact, that it led to Brolin choosing a remote hire for her next employee.

“My eyes were opened to that, and I thought, ‘I don’t really need people to come to the office,’” Brolin said.

Including herself, she has an eight-person staff, and three of her employees work remotely full-time.

“I just dove in with the expectation that they would be getting their job done and I did my due diligence to ensure that,” she said. “But it was just a really good setup for all parties and everyone was happy.”

Set time frame expectations
Brolin let her team members pick from a list of options for their starting and ending times, both to allow her firm to serve clients during the majority of the workday and to establish expectations of when everyone would be online and available.

The core part of the day her team was online and able to work with each other, and the mornings and evening times varied according to the employees’ lifestyles and what worked best for them.

In a 2016 survey by employee engagement firm TINYpulse, remote workers rated the freedom and flexibility they’ve been given at 8.10 on a 1-10 scale, compared to all workers' score of 7.42.

Maximize technology
Because almost half of her team is mobile, Brolin has become less dependent on in-person communication and relies heavily on technology to fulfill client obligations. Her team uses the cloud to store files, and also implemented Asana for project management, Slack for communication and SkyOffice for customer management. Brolin said this has not only improved employee communication, but helped the business excel because employees aren't dependent on tools located in the office to get work done.

“The company continues to move forward every moment,” she said. “Rather than thinking they have to drive back to the office to accomplish something, my employees are able to work from wherever they are.”

The beauty of remote technology is that it can allow more freedom for the boss to travel. Lori Kaiser, CPA, owner of Kaiser Consulting in Powell, recently took a month-long trip to New Zealand and Australia and was able to stay up to date with her employees the entire time. Checking in simply required Wi-Fi access and her computer.

“I have an awesome team,” Kaiser said. “Everybody on my team is very flexible and people fill in for each other all the time.”

Kaiser worked between three and eight hours a day, using email to keep up with correspondence and Skype to attend meetings. She was able to still enjoy her vacation while not completely falling behind on what was going on with her business.

Promote engagement
Of course, remote employees come with their own unique set of challenges. For Brolin, creating a culture that allows all employees to feel included is always a priority.

“The challenge is to create the environment of the typical office, pretending it is one big building and including and involving those remote employees,” she said.

To address this, her team is in constant communication with one another, ensuring that just because someone might not work on Wednesdays or is out on vacation, they don’t miss important details and are able to serve their client to their best ability.

She also has her employees work together for various clients so they avoid isolation and silos that would prevent them from connecting.

"If we have a client come in, I don't give the client to one person," she said. "We split the work up to leverage the strengths of each team member to encourage collaboration."

On a company culture level, Brolin had her team develop a “fun committee” in charge of organizing company events, which includes things such as playing mobile game apps against each other, chartering a boat and holiday parties.

She urged managers and leaders to be proactive about these types of scenarios, because if you’re not aware of it, remote team members can easily feel like outsiders. That could result in a loss in productivity or that person eventually looking elsewhere for employment.

Meet in person
There are times when a Skype call or a text simply won’t cut it, and meeting face to face is necessary. Brolin has employees who live in different states, and will make a visit approximately once a month to see and work with them for several days. As the leader of the company, “It’s important to still have a personal touch,” Brolin said. She makes an effort to check in with her remote employees on things other than work.

She has hosted team events and holidays that get the whole group together in person, so although she has continued to see her remote employees in person regularly, the other members of the team get that in-person interaction as well.

Hire the right person for remote work
Some personalities simply aren’t suited for working remotely full time. Brolin said she has employees who flourish in the office with in-person interaction, and others who are most productive when they can be alone in their own space at home.

Certain employees might know they perform better remotely, while other times a discussion between the employer and employee could prove helpful in determining whether remote work should be an option. If an employee is easily distracted by office activities, that person could be a good candidate for working remotely.

The same TINYpulse survey reported that 91% of remote workers think they "get more work done when working remotely," compared to only 9% who feel they don't.

So whether you’re looking to fulfill a full-time remote position or your current employee would like to explore the option of working remotely, make sure they’re ready for the change in work environment.

Brolin likens accounting to landscaping, where you know no work is being done if the yard is unkept and the flowers haven’t been watered. Checking on an employee’s work will tell you how productive and accurate they are with their time, and if they’re slacking it will soon show.

“Because it’s all in the work product that allows you to know if your employees are engaged or not,” she said. “It’s all in the results.”

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