Money Talks, So Should You

Working from home or doing nothing alone?

How to know if your work-from-home and remote employees are actually working.

Kathryn Tuggle
by Kathryn Tuggle, Contributor (@KathrynLizbeth)

NEW YORK (MainStreet) — From conference calls and Skype chats to instant messages and GoToMeetings, today’s corporate environment is as much out of the office as it is in. For many businesses, this means reduced overhead costs for office space and furniture and happier employees who don’t have a commute or office gossip to worry about.

But in many cases it can be difficult for managers to supervise their remote employees properly, and too much freedom can lead to lost productivity and wages. Technology has evolved quickly to change the way we work, and companies must advance just as quickly to properly manage the staff they can’t see on a daily basis.

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Regardless of a company’s work-from-home policy, Shanti Atkins, president and chief strategy officer of ethics and compliance firm Navex Global, says that the most successful organizations are those that focus on results.

“If the workplace culture is performance based, that allows managers to focus on results vs. micro-managing employees’ day-to-day activities, which obviously becomes even more difficult with remote workers,” Shanti says.

Shanti says a common problem is for remote workers to get less feedback and direction — the “out of sight, out of mind” phenomenon.

“Managers need to ensure they are providing the same amount of oversight and support to their remote teams — perhaps even more, given that these folks don’t get to benefit from the ‘in-the-hallway’ conversations,” he says.

When it comes to oversight, most managers will find that measuring results is the best way to supervise, says Linda Henman, author of "Landing in the Executive Chair."

The one and only way to evaluate employees is related to expectations, Henman says. If a company sets clear goals and metrics, it should be easy to assess who is working and who isn't.

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“If a person can accomplish all their work by noon and someone else can't do it in eight hours, who ends up being the better employee?” she asks. “Too many companies concern themselves with activities instead of results. If you keep results top of mind and evaluate according to them, the rest will take care of itself.”

If performance results are unclear or more difficult to define, David Lewis, president and CEO of human resources consulting firm OperationsInc recommends monitoring technology.

“There are ways to monitor up-time on their laptop and connectivity to your network. I also advise using Instant Messenger as a way to communicate. It shows when a computer is dormant or the person is away, perhaps indicating they are not working;” he says.

For companies that use Skype or an online video chat service, seeing your employee at work a few times a week can be helpful.

“Webcams can be a great way to stay in touch,” he says. “You just have to make sure it’s a prearranged conference and that you’re not spying.”

Before any business pursues a work-from-home arrangement in the long term, says Michelle Benjamin, CEO and founder of workforce solutions company Benjamin Enterprises, says that “productivity indicators” must be clearly established.

“Clear milestones for work production throughout the business day will prevent down time,” she says. “These milestones should require review with discussion of the tangible output with the team leader.”

Business owners must understand the end product they desire from their remote employees so that they can measure quality of output, not simply quantity of time spent, Benjamin says.

“If the agreed work is challenging, yet the milestones are clearly articulated and agreed upon, then the remote worker should be able to meet the desired work quality and expectations,” she says.

Once expectations and milestones are agreed upon, says Diane Rodgers, senior human resources operations manager at CBIZ Human Capital Services, the employer has to accept that there will be some time spent on nonwork-related tasks.

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“If the performance, productivity and customer satisfaction expectations are being met, does the employer care if the employee works in a load of laundry in between? It’s not always apparent, even when employees are working in the office, whether they are constantly working productively.They may be intently staring at their computer screen, but what’s on the computer may not be work-related,” Rodgers says. “There is no fool-proof way to know whether an employee is always thinking about work every hour of the workday, regardless of where they are working.”

If an employee comes under suspicion of not working at capacity — or perhaps even moonlighting — working for more than one employer at once — there are some practical ways to keep tabs, Shanti says.

Employers can set up regular in-person check-ins in which the employee is required to present a progress report that highlights outstanding tasks and priorities. Additionally, the employee could be asked to track their time.

“This can be part of a collaborative exercise to see where they are spending most of their efforts and if any recalibration is needed for the best results. It can also uncover where there may be skill gaps, resource gaps, etc. For hourly workers, or workers who bill their time, this is something that should be happening regardless,” he says.

When placing workers in remote positions, Shanti advises looking for employees who have experience working successfully from home.

“During the reference check process, I would recommend specifically asking questions in this area,” he says. “Some folks just don’t do well working in a home environment — often because they are challenged with a feeling of isolation and being disconnected. Or they simply have a hard time focusing on their job because their workspace is not set up to separate them from their nonwork life.”

Kathryn Elizabeth Tuggle is a seasoned New York-based personal finance editor and writer who adores saving, investing and thrift store shopping. After getting her start writing about small businesses for the Inc. 500 at Inc. Magazine, Kathryn learned her way around the NYSE and NASDAQ while working at the The Financial Times. In 2007, Kathryn joined the Fox Business Network before its inception and was instrumental in launching the company's small business and personal finance sites. Obsessed with all things spending, saving and social media, you can find Kathryn tweeting her latest adventures with Dimespring at @KathrynLizbeth.