Remote control - how to manage homeworkers

Some managers are still dubious about letting staff work from home. But a mixture of trust and targets should keep 'e-workers' focused.

by Miranda Kennett
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

Until recently, the announcement that you were planning to spend a few days a week working from home would have been greeted with scepticism and the suspicion that your afternoons were going to be spent watching Countdown rather than adding value to the body corporate.

But now remote working is well established and demand is rapidly spreading beyond its traditional heartland of road-warrior sales teams and field engineers to the more deskbound divisions of large corporations and public sector organisations. Similarly, back office functions such as finance and data processing are increasingly moving to 'out-working', as it is also known.

What has changed? Well, cost-savings for employers (fewer desks means smaller offices and lower overheads), coupled with growing evidence of greater productivity and improved job satisfaction for remote working staff have combined to drive its popularity sky-high. Office of National Statistics figures show there were 3.3 million remote workers in the UK in 2009, 12% of the workforce - up from 8% in 2005.

Technology is the final clincher - fast, reliable broadband connections, remote security systems and web-accessible applications and network systems have never been cheaper or more available, making the practicalities of remote working easier than ever for firms and individuals.

Christine Grant, a chartered occupational psychologist and senior lecturer at Coventry University, has surveyed 250 remote workers (or e-workers, as she terms them) across 11 organisations, and is devising an e-work life tool to help companies and individuals get the most from remote working. 'For many people, e-working is a choice which allows them greater fulfilment,' she says. 'Many report high levels of job satisfaction and work/life balance.' Her conversations with remote workers reveal that they find working outside the office makes them more productive, as they are interrupted less and can self-manage their workload. They also value the flexibility of being able to fit work around, for example, childcare commitments.

It's not perfect of course - e-workers can struggle to maintain work/non-work boundaries, so switching off can be an issue. How can you 'go home' at the end of the day when you never left it in the first place?

The big unanswered question about remote working, however, is whether remote workers must effectively wave goodbye to promotion. After all, when you're out of sight, what's to stop senior management forgetting you, allowing your office-based and more visible colleagues to elbow their way ahead of you?

Managers seem reluctant to comment on this, despite the enthusiasm for remote working. One senior executive at a major international corporation did have this to say: 'If you decide home's a priority, you won't get promoted. It's a trade-off. At our company we are rated on our performance in building the business and the organisation, and I'm afraid if you're out of sight you're probably also out of mind. Visibility is important, as is being able to coach and mentor and influence decisions.'

Another group struggling to come to terms with the trend is managers - after all, remote working has as much impact on the people who manage remote workers as it does on the workers themselves. Without people in the office, can managers justify their position? Well, yes they can. Few managers have an entirely remote team - there are usually other direct reports in the office. But managers do need to know how to police remote working effectively, starting with the understanding that it's about output rather than presenteeism.

All the same, many would, understandably, still prefer to see bums on seats. Who wants to turn up to a skeleton staff every day? And when the squeeze is on from the higher-ups, it takes a strong-minded manager to see the empty chairs around yet remain entirely confident that his or her scattered team is still working strenuously to cover all the bases.

This may be a cultural shift that many organisations have yet to make. Without visual monitoring and direct control over their employees, managers simply have to trust that their people aren't idling. Setting goals to measure performance can help allay this fear, as can discouraging idle web browsing by limiting access to social networks on company equipment - as British Gas does on its company laptops, for instance.

There is also the tricky matter of how remote workers can keep their finger on the pulse of corporate culture. Collaborative technologies and slick corporate networking tools can help, but there is at present no substitute for at least some shared time together.

But there are advantages to running a remote team too. For starters, morale among remote workers is generally high, because the flexibility they enjoy is a powerful motivation in its own right. 'One of the managers I interviewed said to his reports: "You can work whenever you want to. I don't need to hear from you about when you're working,"' says Grant. She found the more she trusted them, the more they delivered. But there was a stick to go with the carrot - 'If you're not performing, you're back in the office. It was an approach that seemed to work well.'

So, if you think you can manage your hours, be disciplined about switching off your BlackBerry, don't mind missing out on office banter and are prepared to work hard on keeping in with the higher-ups, remote working could suit you. And for those who really do yearn for the freedom of planning their working day around the things that matter most to them, here's a tip: Countdown starts at 3.10pm.

TAKE-HOME LESSONS

Tips from remote workers and their bosses

- Graham Wright, marketing manager, Hewlett-Packard, based near Swindon, and his boss, Lucio Furlani, vice president, solutions and industry marketing worldwide, based in Milan

Wright has worked from home for the past seven years, providing support to colleagues around the world, many of whom he has never met. His boss, who was appointed nine months ago, works in the unofficial commercial capital of Italy, Milan. Wright has only met him once. 'He does my appraisal by phone and electronically,' he says.

It's a modus operandi that clearly suits him: 'What I really appreciate is the ability to work effectively because I am not constantly being interrupted. When you are in an office, everybody wants your time. I cram my day with work, so I feel HP's getting its money's worth. Then I turn my PC off. Not all my colleagues do. Also, I've recently become a dad and working from home means I can see my son in the morning and five minutes later be at work. If I had to commute any distance I'd see much less of him.'

However, he does miss office camaraderie. 'When we do have external meetings, my colleagues and I always set aside time together to develop that more personal relationship. And though we don't have 'water-cooler' moments, younger staff are using social networking sites to create equivalents.'

Does Wright think his career advancement is hampered by working remotely? 'Possibly, but then my peers operate in a similar way, so have the same advantages and disadvantages.'

Wright's boss is Lucio Furlani, who spends at least 50% of his time either working remotely or managing remote workers. He enjoys it and has adapted his management style to suit. 'It's more difficult to read how people are thinking and behaving when you are not in the same room, and to know who's feeling frustrated and who needs encouragement,' he says. 'You need to listen to what they're saying and ask questions in such a way that you can help them perform.'

Inevitably, the majority of his contact with remote colleagues is via electronic means, which Furlani believes suits many functions. 'But higher level creativity benefits from face to face - it's much more difficult to be creative on the phone. And ideally we like people working in sales to live in the same place as their customers.'

- Joanne Mooney, customer journey and online experience manager, British Gas, based in Stockport, and her boss, Lucy Shadbolt, head of channel development for British Gas New Energy, based in Staines

In the two years she's been working remotely for British Gas, Mooney has enjoyed the flexibility and greater access to her young family, and feels she mostly gets the balance right. 'You have to know when to switch off. At home, define your space, define your roles in the house, be disciplined in your working day, when it starts and stops. It's not always fair to the family - they know mummy's working, so they have to talk in hushed tones and that seems restrictive to them in their own home.'

She had managed a call centre of 150 people and sometimes misses the banter. 'When I started, I was 100% working from home. I prefer the mix of the new role, where I'm getting out and meeting people. It's easier to build the relationship over the phone if you've met the person.'

Lucy Shadbolt, head of channel development for British Gas New Energy, is Mooney's boss. Since taking on the role in October she has built a team of 10, all of whom work at least part of the time remotely, including herself. 'It suits me; I get so much more done. The whole team love it,' she says. Shadbolt runs weekly meetings from the Staines office and is in regular contact with each team member. 'Some things are not suitable for conference calls. If I have to have a difficult conversation it needs to be face to face.' She's confident she's getting good performance from each of them: 'You have to trust them. I make it clear with new team members that working from home is a privilege. If you give clear objectives it's easy to monitor output. People don't work 9 to 5, they work longer. It's not unusual to send an email at 10pm. Work is where your laptop is.'

Shadbolt acknowledges some aspects of her own career development are more difficult to achieve at arm's length - such as getting the ear of the boss. 'When I go into the office, where we hot-desk, I have to make an effort to position myself near my boss. You need to consciously build relationships when you don't have those water-cooler moments naturally occurring.'

- Susan Hunter, development officer, and her boss Ronnie MacRae, director of the Highlands Small Communities Housing Trust

Geographically speaking, Ronnie MacRae, director of the Highlands Small Communities Housing Trust, is the epitome of the remote manager, living and working in Inverness and Dornoch and travelling around the Highlands. He heads a team of five, responsible for building projects in the far north of Scotland, as well as a scheme to get young unemployed people trained as builders.

MacRae visits the Inverness office twice a week to attend to the many 'mundane but essential' parts of his role: checking with regulatory bodies, applications for project funding. 'I work autonomously but am always contactable, through Skype and mobile phone,' says MacRae. 'If I had a team that required a lot of managing I'd have to be in the office all the time and I would be spending unnecessary time going over and over the same things. But I have a steady, competent team, all committed to the work the trust does, which makes managing fairly easy.'

Only one of his team is permanently office-based - Susan Hunter, one of two development officers. 'We're working remotely physically but it doesn't feel remote - the technology is certainly beneficial. The Highlands are huge,' says Hunter.

She thinks MacRae has made the transition from colleague to manager pretty smoothly and admires his management style. 'He's aware of my limitations and my strengths. He knows pretty accurately how much pressure he can put on me before I say "Too much".' Does his absence ever cause difficulties? 'Only when he comes in with a list of projects as long as your arm. Our prioritisation may not be exactly in sync. There needs to be acknowledgement of skills and awareness of abilities on both sides. I hope we've got that.'

FOR REMOTE WORKERS

Win trust by delivering on targets. If you can't hit a particular target or deadline, tell your manager early, and offer an alternative solution.

If you think your boss needs reassurance, try submitting a monthly (or even weekly) status report, relating your activities to your objectives.

Aim to meet new clients or colleagues in person at least once. It's easier to build a subsequent relationship once you've actually met.

It sounds obvious, but the ability to manage your time, and to switch off mentally, is key. If you feel you're always on the clock, it's time to reconsider your working practices.

Make sure your technology is sorted - PC, broadband, mobile phone, printer, and that you have a back-up if you hit a problem.

FOR THEIR MANAGERS

Establish that this is a privilege, which can be withdrawn.

Schedule regular meetings with remote workers, particularly for important conversations such as appraisals and reviews. Provide opportunities for a remote working team to get together.

Set and agree clear objectives and targets, and try to find a way of measuring intangibles such as contribution to team effectiveness.

Keep in close, regular touch with all your remote workers. Watch out for resentment from office-bound colleagues, who risk picking up the extra jobs and superfluous meetings that remote workers are often spared. Encourage remote workers to visit the office regularly and perhaps take on some of these additional tasks.

FOR ORGANISATIONS

First of all, you should consider establishing a remote working policy, which makes the parameters and performance measurements clear for everybody.

Then, evaluate what training is needed for remote workers, perhaps involving those who already remote work successfully. Skills such as time-management, building client and colleague relationships, and maintaining successful work/life boundaries are all crucial, says Grant, and all can be taught.

Some companies promote social networking, and have their own intranets, so employees who work remotely can have an opportunity for social exchange and don't feel isolated from their colleagues in the office.

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