Set Goals, Be Okay With Saying No and Urge Visibility to Manage Remote Workers

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Remote working continues to be a debatable issue. Many editorial departments for B2B publishers—Lexipol and Bobit Business Media’s Trucking Info to name a couple—are run without main offices, better to attract and retain the best writers. But other publishers—I recall Marijuana Business Daily—require some degree of coming to the office each week.

In a fascinating and comprehensive SIPA webinar titled Remote Employees: When to Do It and How to Optimize the Arrangement last October, Heather Farley, COO of Access Intelligence, and Dan Fink, managing director of Money-Media, gave great insights on the work-ins and work-outs of remote work. One where they agreed on was managers working remotely. Money-Media may be a bit more emphatic, but both executives see flaws in it.

"Currently, our policy doesn't allow managers to be full-time remote when their team is located in a central office," Fink said. "We do allow managers to work partial-remote (e.g. Tuesdays and Thursdays at home), but we don't do that often. That said, managers are given wide ad hoc flexibility to work from home as needed. Everyone in our organization gets that type of flexibility to balance work-life issues."

For Farley, it's more a matter of, "Can their employees work at a high level if their manager works remote? It might go beyond that person's skillset." On the positive side, she said that it can be a great opportunity for emerging people to step up when a manager works remotely. "Somebody goes remote and that next person takes more of a leadership role. You'll then have a good understanding of where their capabilities are and where they need to be shored up or what you need to be alert to."

Here were more of the highlights from the webinar:

Find better tools. Still on the idea of remote managers, Fink added that they "are actively implementing better tools to support more flexible working arrangements, which will eventually apply to managers, too. We are issuing laptops to all staff, installing large screens in all conference rooms, deploying video conferencing software, setting up Slack company-wide, and clarifying our criteria and expectations for making remote work successful. We are embracing the flexible working trend, but with a deliberate and well-planned approach."

For the young and the rest of us. While remote work has grown 44% in the last five years, 77% of remote workers are between ages 25-44. Farley attributed much of that to technical proficiency and a better comfort level. She added that the most relevant stat is that 90% of remote workers say they're more productive. "We hear this a lot at AI. [But] if an employee feels more productive, is that apparent to the employer?"

Set expectations. "Experience is a big factor," Fink said. "Earlier career-stage staff looking to work remotely can raise concerns. It's important to set expectations. Maybe they can do this role, but then a situation comes to fruition, and a lot of expectations were not sorted out up front. There were two different interpretations." And when will the person be in the office? Setting expectations on how days may shift is important. Child care may require them to be at home certain days. There has to be clear expectation on both sides. Or there could be difficulty.

Attending—and engaging in—meetings is very important. "We have a video conferencing system," Fink said. "Frequency of cameras being disabled has become an issue that we've tried to address. We are encouraging people to use the video component. Audio is one element, but video another; it really enhances it. What collaborative tools are in place to support work goals? We've installed some large screens in conference rooms. There's a marked difference in how that person participates. And how the people feel; it feels like that person was in the meeting room. It really does make a significant difference."

Farley agreed. "Do they have good relationships and how do they fit in with colleagues and the overall ecosystem. Making sure your company is equipped with the right kind of tools to stay connected is critical. Also, they might be not as organized out of the office atmosphere. Are they prepared for the distractions of home? We do require that you've made child care arrangements." They also like to have the employees come to the office at different times throughout the year. "We do different trainings, awards dinners, meetings." Fink said they require 2-4 week-long trips to the office during the year. It also gives those employees a chance to take advantage of the video set-up they have and the better access to interviewees.

Check on the taxes you'll have to pay. Fink said the cost can be as low as $2,000 but as high as $20,000—usually the states where more business is done have the higher taxes.

Set guidelines. "What if an employee is out of the office 2-3 hours and you need to get a response?" Fink asked. "When do you move from email to Slack to mobile phones? Is an employee okay with people calling his/her personal phone? Once an arrangement is in place, from our experience, there are pitfalls in thinking, 'Oh, I'm sure we'll get the hang of it and it will all get ironed out. It's much harder to change later." The goal should be "to make it as comparable as possible. Keep responsibilities the same, meeting schedule; you want to mirror the office experience as much as possible. Can't always do that but that's the goal."

Urge them to stay visible. "For employees, be visible," Farley said. "You're not in the office everyday so it is incumbent on you to be visible. Advice: be more visible, over-communicate. Dan has people not using the video system. This is an opportunity to be more connected. Speak up in meetings. Sitting there and being captive is not good for you. Stay engaged with your team."

Be transparent. The easy thinking might be that it doesn't matter where that person is once they're remote. But both Farley and Fink say that's not true. You may be visiting grandma in Florida and that means a different set of circumstances. "As an emerging best practice, always let your manager know if you will be in a different location," Fink said. "Even if it won't affect [your work], it's good communication. You may have a problem with wifi, or there could be 10 more knocks on the door, or a dog barking." He has one pet peeve in a meeting with someone remote—when that person sends you multiple emails during the meeting. "It feeds a negative impression of what they were doing during the meeting."

Ask for feedback. "Is this working for you?" Farley asked. "What are the pain points? Are you lonely? Do you feel disenfranchised? Is the work getting done? Relationships work because they're built on trust. We talk about it on a regular basis, to have regular touch-in points is critical. Things don't just happen.
Clear the decks and course correct to get those situations working."

Scale salary. Money Media scales compensation to the geography or where a remote worker lives. Fink said that they have to do that or it would create a huge financial incentive to move away. (Money-Media is headquartered in New York.) Also, he added, staff at headquarters could be resentful and he fears that without scaling, a remote employee would have a hard time making a job move.

For reviewing performance, set quantitative achievement goals. "Have a two-way dialogue about what is and isn't working," Farley said. "Review performance metrics regularly and again, over-communicate. Make sure everybody understands up front what they'll be measured on, and the cadence. At AI we'll review for these criteria at 90 days. Then we'll have a formal review in six months. If there's criteria or something lacking we'll meet earlier. Set regular intervals to talk, not relying on "Oh, it'll work itself out." Tell them to come to that meeting with thoughts on how it's working."

Know when to say no. Farley cautions that there are times it may not be best. "If an employee is new in their role, do they understand our system? Have they interfaced with accounting, production? It's six months before we would consider someone for a remote work." She then repeated something she heard and liked: "The least fair thing you can do is treat everyone the same. Why would it be fair to treat a top performer like a low level person? Look at each individual and each opportunity."

"There are people here that we would've hated to lose if we didn't allow them to work remotely," Fink said.

"It can reduce turnover," Farley said. "We have our fair share of challenges. If [allowing people to work remotely] can help us retain employees and improve job satisfaction... Our people are our assets. We need to value those assets. It's about finding that motivation to make it work for everyone."

She added that the cost of losing an employee can be huge when you measure the time and effort to find someone else, the onboarding and training that will be required and the value of losing someone who really knows your business.

Listen to the webinar here.

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Ronn Levine began his career as a reporter for The Washington Post and has won numerous writing and publications awards since. Most recently, he spent 12 years at the Newspaper Association of America covering a variety of topics before joining SIPA in 2009 and SIIA in 2013 as editorial director…