Manager Mysteries & Mishaps Podcast

Managing remote employees. [Interview]

This episode dives into a growing trend in the workplace - remote and mobile employees. Learn how you can manage and connect with employees near and far.


Remote work, also referred to as telecommuting, is a work arrangement in which you don't work in a centralized workspace. These workspaces are generally corporate offices or stores, so technically speaking, to work remotely is to work anywhere other than those areas. From your home, on the road, in a coffee shop, in a coworking space.

There are now more opportunities than ever to work remotely, and that wouldn't be possible without two things. First, organizations are becoming more flexible and accommodating to remote work. Leaders realize that the best people for the job don't always live in a local area and can't or won't relocate to a central workspace. Likewise, organizations are quickly learning that some employees are more productive than others in different settings or environments.

The second factor, technology, is what made the first one possible. Reliable, portable, and cheap technology allows us to work almost anywhere in the world now. You can have a video chat with someone on the other side of the planet with almost no delay in communication or reduced video or sound quality. They're thousands of miles away yet it's like they're in the same room as you.

Between those two factors of supportive cultures and more widespread technological advancements, it makes sense that remote work is really common across the world. But just because something's popular doesn't mean it's always managed well. To address better management of remote employees, I interviewed Katie Strehler, chief human resources officer at Rehmann.

Katie talks about ways to ensure that managers can make remote employees feel included and connected, as well as the importance of setting clear expectations of individuals and technology.



Working remotely is becoming more popular, more common across organizations. With that in mind, how do you think people managers help remote employees feel included and connected, how they can do that with the rest of their team, or even with the rest of the organization?

Definitely there's a shift that's occurring in having workplace and individuals that make up the workplace spend much more time at home being productive and efficient and effective, versus being in an office setting. There's certainly benefits from a people perspective, an employment perspective, and there's benefits for the organization as well. But it can create some challenges and trying to build that cohesion within a team, and then also establish that relationship between a leader and their people on their team as well.

So, I think there's a lot of techniques that can be used to ensure that that relationship is established, and just like most things in life, communication is certainly key. So, it starts there, and really ensuring that those people leaders are having regular dialogue and contact with the individuals that are working remotely, more of a frequent basis versus if they were in an office setting.

That dialogue on a consistent basis, and I would say not just dialogue about the work that's being performed and the work that's being done, but dialogue beyond that as well, and that people leaders showing a genuine interest in them as people, and what their life looks like outside of the work that they do. That's going to help ensure that that relationship is really established.

So, communication is key, and then I would add too, from a technology standpoint, there's so many tools and resources that are out there today to leverage, to ensure that the individuals working from home are still productive and efficient and effective, and collaborate with others on their team and collaborate with their leaders. I would say leveraging that technology, but beyond that, I would add that I think it's important on both sides, both from a leader's perspective, and the employee's perspective, to understand what the different tools to communicate are used for.

Just ensuring that those expectations are clear as to how we're going to use these different tools and avenues to communicate with one another. In my organization, we use video conferencing quite a bit. Even when working from home, and we have the camera that's hooked up to our laptops, so when you're having a conversation with somebody, I could be at home and somebody from my team can be at home, but we can still maintain eye contact with one another, and understand each other's body language because we leverage that video technology to have that dialogue and have that conversation.

I think leveraging that technology is key. But then at the same time, taking into consideration and truly remembering that technology can't replace that personal touch, so if at all possible, being able to bring the teams together and those individuals with their leaders for face-to-face conversation on as frequent of a basis as possible, based on what makes sense for the individuals in the organization so that they can have that one on one face-to-face dialogue, too.

I would never want the technology to replace the relationship and the bond that one can have when they're sitting across from each other and having a conversation.


Have you noticed either with communication, leveraging technology, or that face-to-face, what kinds of barriers have you noticed either across organizations or just in general, to inclusion and connection, that might happen with those?

The key here is being very intentional about it, because you hear people say all the time, communication is essential. But then the days come and go and we seem to consistently hear feedback from associates that they weren't in the know, and they didn't understand, and they didn't feel communicated to.

So, just life can be a barrier and the demands of life can really get in the way, so being very intentional about keeping communication top of mind, and making sure that there's standard, regular, consistent touch bases that take place between leaders and their people that are scheduled on the calendars, even if it's 15 minutes, to ensure that that relationship continues to be built and established, and that that dialogue takes place between the two.

I really think the biggest barrier is just the demands of life, and then I would add too, going back to the topic of technology, is a lack of a clear expectation as to the correct usage for the technology. If you're going to use of course, email, and instant message, and video conferencing, and let's have a conversation around what's the best use of technology based on what we're talking about? And making sure that both sides really understand that, so that it's not a barrier between the two.

And so many people leaders focus so much on the work getting done, the impact to the organization, if somebody is hitting or missing the mark. And them as leaders maybe missing the mark, and establishing a relationship with that individual, like I had said, beyond the work that's getting done. So, showing that genuine, sincere, authentic interest in these individuals, whether they're working from home or in the office. That goes back to the demands of life, too.

There's a lot to get done in a day, but you can't miss the fact that these leaders of people should be focusing on establishing relationships with these individuals beyond just the work product itself. That's going to drive engagement, and commitment, and loyalty, and all those things that are key in any organization.


So, with your example of the lack of clear expectation, do you have any examples that you've run across where something was either not communicated or communicated poorly, and people were using say those tools for completely different purposes?

I think the biggest I guess misstep I've seen with especially the communication tools is when to send an email, when to pick up the phone, and when to use instant message. Those three tools certainly can overlap based on the type of communication that needs to take place, but even having a conversation around, "This is the type of question or situation or thing that might come up where email would be appropriate, or Skype would be appropriate, or it would be appropriate to pick up a phone and have a conversation with somebody."

And with the next generation of individuals coming up in the workplace, what I've observed is they're very quick to send an instant message or send an email, and might not be quick to pick up the phone. So, I'll see these email conversations going back and forth for days and I'll have to put a stop to it to say, "Let's just jump on a call and have a conversation about this. That's probably the best means of communication based on the email exchange and the topic at hand here."

It really goes back to those clear expectations and making sure you as the people leader and your team know when to use which means of communication for certain things as they come up.


Do you think it's better if there's more of a formal process to have those expectations in play, or that it would potentially differ between team to team, depending on the tools they use?

I would say my recommendation would not be to be super severe and super formal, but have that people leader have a conversation with their team to ensure those clear expectations across the board. I don't think it would need to get to a place where there would have to be a formal policy or procedure, that sort of thing, but let's have a conversation around it to make sure that we're using these tools the right way.


Do you have any good examples of when remote workers have expressed or seemed as though they felt especially included or connected? Like, what the people manager or the team might have done to do an excellent job of making those remote workers feel included?

Yep. There's a couple individuals on my team actually that spend quite a bit of time working remotely. So, we have some team members that come into the office on a consistent basis, and then some team members that work remotely the vast majority of the time. The consistent feedback we've heard from those individuals is they do feel like they're a part of the team, and there's collaboration across the team, there's this cohesiveness across the team.

They're not feeling any different just because they're working remotely. I would say the reason being is there's effort on both sides. There's effort from the people leader to ensure that they're included, and that people leader's very intentional about it, ensuring that they're included, with their communication, with their updates, with dialing them in.

And then the individual that's working remotely, they understand there's an expectation on their side as well, so they have to show that genuine interest in collaborating with others and reach out and stay dialed in, and not just take a backseat and wait for the information to come to them. We make that expectation of there's responsibility on both sides. We make that pretty clear right from the start when somebody chooses a type of work arrangement where they're working from home the majority of the time.

And then we'll do formal check-ins, like how are things going? Are you feeling like you're a part of this team? Are you feeling like you're out of the loop? What could we do differently to ensure that that is the case? Again, just that frequent contact with those individuals to make sure that the arrangement is working the way that it was designed to, because we know individuals working remotely can be extremely productive and extremely efficient but we don't want them to lose sight or us to lose sight of that relationship that is key as well.


Have you seen any kind of signs or symptoms that might be a tip to a people manager that maybe they need to check-in more frequently, maybe that they need to involve the remote employee a little bit more?

Yep. Naturally some people are a little quieter than other people. So, what I coach leaders to do is when they're having their meetings and they're pulling individuals together, even through video conference, so you have a screen and you can see your team up on the screen, like The Brady Bunch, and you have some that are quiet and you have some that are your big extroverts, and they're comfortable raising their hand and talking and dialing in, and weighing in.

If you see some where they're either exceptionally quiet or there's a change in their behavior, what I always encourage them to do is reach out after the fact and just share with those individuals, "I noticed a change. I noticed that you were pretty quiet on this call. Is something going on?" Just have that dialogue around it, but it requires that people leader to be super observant of their team and ensure that they're watching their body language and their tone and how much interaction they have with the rest of the team to know whether or not it makes sense to have that follow-up or not.


For remote working, have you seen or noticed any trends that are of interest, or that you anticipate over the next 5-10 years that might really impact remote employees or just remote work situations?

I see this trend in individuals working remotely continuing to increase. I certainly don't think this is the end. I think it's only just begun. Going back to there's a lot of pros from an employment side of it, as well as an organizational side of it. So, I see the trend continuing and that next generation of individuals that are coming up within organizations right now, obviously flexibility and that work/life integration and being able to have that work/life integration is key to them.

So, organizations really have an obligation to figure out how to make this a win/win, both from an employee side and an organizational side, so I see it continuing and then I see a requirement that organizations really need to ensure they're setting clear expectations with these individuals that are working remotely. Because individuals want to know, "Am I hitting the mark or am I missing the mark?" Whether you're at home or in an office setting.

Those people leaders have to be, it's now more important than ever to really ensure that their individuals that they're responsible for have a very clear understanding as to what's expected of them, and that need is just going to increase from here, just based on the number of people that are going to continue to more integrate their work and their life, and work from home, or an office, or a coffee shop, or an airport, wherever it's convenient for them, and the goal being what's the result that we're looking to achieve? How can those leaders support those individuals that are working in all of different areas to get to that result?



I want to emphasize two points that Katie made throughout the interview. First, I'd say her most important point is that managers should always remember that technology can't replace the personal touch. This doesn't mean remote employees have to be flown in every other week or once a month just to maintain a face-to-face in person connection. Instead, this means to show a genuine and sincere interest in your team members, and this includes those who work remotely.

You may not be able to eat lunch with them or go to happy hour or whatever, but you can and should show an interest in them as people, not just thinking of them as a talking head that shows up on your computer screen from time to time.

The second point I wanted to call out is to set clear expectations about how to use technology and when. Based on your team's unique culture, set expectations about when email versus phone versus chat versus other technology should be used. It can be counterproductive to use email when a quick phone call would suffice. It can also be counterproductive to try to set up a meeting with people in various locations and time zones, when a meeting really isn't needed, and just going through a chat or messaging program is fine.

And that's it for this episode! Join me next time on Manager Mysteries & Mishaps, where I'll conduct an interview about the employee experience.                                     

Subscribe to

Manager Mysteries & Mishaps