Must keep a close eye on those remote workers...

You just know they’re goofing off, don’t you? Those remote workers on your team. They’re not working…you can feel it.

The deadline for the next blog post is in 3 hours. You haven’t heard anything from them in the past 2. If only you could prove their laziness. You could force them back into the office. Or fire them, and replace them with someone who stays in the office who doesn’t goof off!

So you call up one of your remote workers. Out of the blue. You’re going to get them back on task, or add fuel to your righteous firing fury.

“Hello? Oh, hi Boss. Yeah, I’m working on it now. Have been for the past 2 hours. Almost done. No, just a few minutes more. I’ll message you when it’s ready.”

 

Oh. So they were working on the blog post that whole time. You not only misjudged their efforts…you disrupted their workflow with the out-of-the-blue call. The blog post you get back may not have the same quality as the one you’d get if you hadn’t broken their concentration.

This sort of scenario plays out way too often. It’s 2018, and yet, some managers cannot let go of the old office paradigm. “If I can’t see you, you’re not working!”

Of course, this is so far from the truth it’s almost insulting. A manager cannot see someone homed in another office…do they make the same assumption about their lack of productivity? (Sometimes they do, believe it or not.)

Remote workers take that a step further. Even though they build software, create good content, and keep huge parts of the world economy working…they garner much more managerial venom than they deserve.

So what’s the solution? That’s what we’ll go through today.

Managers & Employees Have Different Perspectives

Here’s a portrayal of a sadly-typical exchange between Managers and Employees Working Remotely. It shows how one small change in perspective can have disastrous consequences.

  • Manager – I must keep the team on deadline. Checks in with Employee. Demands an update.
  • Employee – Stops working at each check-in. Breaks their workflow. Gets nervous. Over time, they become paranoid about their job.
  • Manager – ‘Invites’ employee back into office. “You’ll be more productive here.”
  • Employee – Sees this ‘invitation’ as magnifying the problem. More interruptions, more surveillance! Has to go into the office, but is now more nervous than ever. Work suffers.
  • Manager – Terminates unproductive employee. Sees the whole thing as justifying their negative view of remote work.
  • Employee – Finds a new job working remotely again. Enjoys the focus & freedom. Work quality soars.

See what just happened? The manager, due to their preconceived notions, essentially sabotaged their own employee. They lost out on all the productive work that employee could have done, without the manager breathing down their neck.

The employee doesn’t understand why their manager targeted them. They likely never will. No one will speak to the manager about this chain of events. The cycle will repeat, until either:

A. The company ceases allowing remote workers. In which case the manager will focus all their interruptions within the office, lowering OVERALL productivity.
OR
B. The manager realizes their disruptive behavior & changes it.

Focus During Remote Work

Two of these people are building new software to do amazing things. The third just got an email from his manager, who wants to talk. Guess who’s who.
Photo by Tim Bish on Unsplash

The Importance of Focus (and Letting Workers Employ It)

What’s one of the most important things to an employee…no matter where they do their work? FOCUS.
Using long chunks of time to eliminate distractions, focus on the work in front of you, and knock it out.

Without this Focus Time, you’ll never do your best work. Distractions break concentration, pull you out of the flow, and then your work suffers.

I looked up articles on “eliminating distractions for remote workers.” Every single one stressed having a chunk of Focus Time:
Remote work: 9 tips for eliminating distractions and getting things done – GitLab (#3, “Book out your ‘focus time'”)
11 Ways to Eliminate Distractions While Working from Home – TechRepublic (#2, “Break up your work”)
8 Remote Workers Explain How They Avoid Distractions – Remote.co (#6, “Set a Timer”)

Now, if you’re a manager, you can easily understand why remote workers deserve Focus Time. Set the guidelines and the deadlines, and let them deliver the goods. Hey, while they’re focused, you can focus on clearing your own task list too! Everybody wins, right?

But you still have that shred of paranoia. You can’t SEE them. How do you trust what you can’t see?

We have a question before us…How do you make sure remote workers stay on-task, without disrupting their Focus Time and hurting their work quality?

Luckily, I have a solution that should work for you. Manager and remote worker alike.

Use Software to Monitor Remote Workers, and to Check In With Them (Sparingly)

This is a two-part solution. One part is monitoring remote workers (to indeed verify that they ARE working). The other part is a good check-in strategy to stay up-to-date and stick to deadlines.

The first part: Monitoring. This involves keeping silent, unobtrusive tabs on the activity & output coming from a remote worker’s computer. (Or tablet; I’m not picky.)

I recommend taking a two-part approach to monitoring. First, institute a project management platform, and have everyone track their activity therein. Doing this not only verifies time worked on projects, but gives everyone a reference for co-workers’ progress.

Many project management platforms exist; I like Asana and Trello myself. They don’t track time on their own, but you can install an add-on like EverHour to do that.

Second, use subtle software tools to sample activity data from all employees’ computers. I’m talking about software like Screenshot Monitor here. This tool takes screenshots of your employees’ screen, so you can see what they’re doing. That’s not the only monitoring option though; here are ten more from PCMag.

Most importantly…neither part of this approach gets in a remote worker’s way.

A Work-Encouraging Check-In Strategy

Now for the second part of my solution. Monitoring activity & output is a big help. But what about communication? Those regular check-ins every manager likes to do, just to see how you’re doing.

You may want to haul remote workers into a daily (virtual) meeting for check-in. Don’t do that. Meetings, even remote ones, take up time better used for Focus Time.

Instead, do one-on-one check-ins twice to three times per week. Keep to a per-person time limit, but don’t try to squeeze everyone into 5 minutes each. Some people may need more time.

(I’ll cover more on communication intervals vs. quality in a future post.)

This check-in method is easy to schedule, eliminating the nervousness of out-of-the-blue calls. Scheduling them at the same time each week eliminates the sense of disruption. Finally, it’s one-on-one; you’ll have direct communication each time.

Check-In with Manager

Oh, five minutes to my check-in.
Photo by Jessica Arends on Unsplash.

Any communication method will work for such a remote check-ins. I like this order of methods, from best to worst:

  • Slack (or Teams, Google Hangouts, etc.)
  • Slack/Email Combination
  • Email/Phone Combination
  • Email Only
  • Phone Only

If you’re instituting a project management platform, schedule a recurring task for each check-in. Everyone gets a reminder beforehand. Nobody’s surprised. Everyone can gear up for the check-in, go through whatever needs going through, and get back to distraction-free Focus Time!

Don’t Let Paranoia Drive Your Remote Workers Away

My last post on communication “burstiness” plays into the check-in side of this monitoring solution. If you take a moment to read it, I’m sure you’ll see how it helps.

Managers! I’m sorry to tell you this, but your “If I can’t see them they’re not working” paradigm died years ago. Remote workers DO stick to their work. They’re turning in some fantastic work, in fact.

If you’re unsure of their progress at any given point, that’s a problem you must solve. The answer is NOT to force people back into the office. They’re actually more likely to get distracted that way!

Instead, use a little software and scheduling to keep lines of communication open. I’m 100% certain you’ll find those remote workers will stay in contact, keep up good productivity, and remain excellent workers for years.

Do you manage remote workers now? How do you keep an eye on their work?

Communicating Remotely

A recent study recommends remote teams communicate in “bursts,” not constantly throughout the workday.

The website behavioralscientist.org, a site discussing human psychology, published the following article on May 29:

“Bursty” Communication Can Help Remote Teams Thrive – Behavioral Scientist

I find the fact that a psychology website brings up Remote Work very important. Adoption of Remote Work is more a question of psychology than anything else.

The tech IS available, and has been for years. Implementation only takes days. But before that you need the company to accept the notion of Remote Work (what many call ‘buy-in’). After implementation, you need work habits to change, adapting around the new Remote Work option.

These are both a matter of human beliefs, attitudes, and habits – all aspects of human psychology.

So let’s examine what the BehavioralScientist.org article has to say.

Study Done on Remote Team Productivity when Using 2 Communication Methods

The article discusses a study which tested remote teams’ communication strategies. Specifically, they measured two different communication methods:

  1. Standard communication: Communication occurred constantly, in small exchanges, all throughout the day. Lag time often occurred between initial requests and responses.
  2. “Burstiness”: Communication “bursts” – rapid exchange of messages within a short time period – occurred sporadically during the workday. Then people went back to their work until the next “burst.”

The result? The teams using “burstiness” were more productive, more coherent, and had higher-quality work at the end of the day. Findings included this statistical result: “A one standard deviation increase in burstiness lead to a 24 percent performance increase.”

24% improvement is pretty darn significant for a controlled trial!

What This Means: Nonstop Conversation Trickle Disrupts Work. Communication Bursts Allow Focused Work.

I’ve seen this reflected in my own telecommuting. As you’re working, you begin to run into snags. I need this file from Sharon…are we debuting the new trial version on Thursday or Monday…

You ask the co-worker about the snag. But co-workers, wrapped up in their own work, don’t answer right away. What do you do? You either a) keep bugging them, or b) wait (causing what I call ‘Question Buildup’).

Within a normal office environment, you could go ask them & get back to work. But that creates another type of disruption. You go to Sharon’s desk, ask her a question, and get an answer. Then someone else asks Sharon a question & gets an answer. Then someone else…

How much work can Sharon accomplish like this? None!

A constant trickle of quick conversations, facilitated by an easy-to-access office environment, just RUINS productivity. But without those questions answered, you get Question Buildup, and your work can’t progress. It creates a bad Catch 22.

“Bursty” communication periods can solve this problem, according to the study.

Here’s how I envision using “burstiness” during the workday. (Forgive the crudely-basic infographic; I am not a designer.)

Burstiness for Remote Teams

“Burstiness” and its role in the remote team’s workday.

  1. All team members proceed with their work.
  2. Questions begin to build up among them.
  3. One or more persons calls for a Burst session.
  4. Everyone stops their work & converses with the team.
  5. Questions are answered, issues resolved, direction obtained. Could take as little as 5 minutes.
  6. Team members go back to work.
  7. Repeat cycle if necessary.

Communicating in Bursts Lets Remote Workers Do Their Work, AND Stay Productive. Try It!

Take a minute and read the BehavioralScientist.org article. It’s an excellent study, and a short read.

We glean a strong two-part point about remote work from the study results:

  • Communication is key for ALL teams, but especially remote teams. Doing so productively translates to big productivity gains.
  • Remote Work is more a matter of psychology than procedure. If the psychological acceptance isn’t there, someone will sabotage the whole effort.

How do you handle communication when working remotely?