June 11, 2020

Issues to Watch Out for When Managing Remote Workers

Managing remote workers comes with its share of challenges. The complexities of setting and articulating expectations in a remote work environment – and providing feedback about performance tied to those expectations – adds an additional burden to our already-crowded work lives, particularly for managers who are new to remote supervisory roles.

This article highlights some key issues that arise when managing remote workers.

Issue 1: Insufficient feedback

Annual reviews are not enough. Data clearly reflects that employees who receive regular feedback are happier, and more productive, in their roles. Employees require a “continuous feedback loop” to grow and improve. While many companies started migrating toward continuous feedback before the pandemic, remote work further increases the need for more frequent (formal and informal) check-ins. Organizations must provide management with a toolkit for providing – and receiving – constant feedback, and this toolkit should take into account changes in work styles and modalities of communication when employees are remote. Given the ease with which we can give face-to-face feedback compared to “virtual” feedback, this toolkit becomes even more important when only some employees are remote and others have returned onsite.  

Issue 2: Absence of formal reviews

As some companies begin to transition their workforce back into the physical office, others are evaluating more permanent telecommuting. So what does this mean for the “formal” appraisals? Should you review or not review?

Several prominent tech companies have announced that they are delaying or suspending their formal review processes. Others, including Facebook, are simply giving all employees identical (high) performance ratings. Some organizations have taken a different approach and have modified their review programs to better reflect the “current” and “new” normal, while others have retained pre-COVID review procedures.

With the great variability in formal appraisal procedures, today’s companies need to evaluate which of the above approaches are best suited to their personnel needs. While an “old” review metric or process may not easily convert to remote work, the absence of a review does not necessarily correlate with the absence of performance concerns. A lack of review may also complicate future efforts to manage unsatisfactory performance, fomenting future liability. Management in this new normal requires a comprehensive examination of review procedures and potential modification of metrics, feedback mechanisms, and expectations.

Issue 3: Addressing “off limits’” topics

Topics that managers might normally bring up in casual, in-person conversations, such as telling an employee they seem distracted or asking about family life, may be red flags in today’s work-from-home world. Employees may be struggling with work/life balance issues or managing health or other familial pressures. Good management during this pandemic means that in interacting with our teams and giving feedback we carefully address topics that could create discomfort, highlight inequities, or even give rise to liability—while still managing to specific, articulated, and attainable metrics. Managers who are newer to remote supervision should be encouraged to reach out to HR at the preliminary stages of a performance concern, particularly if the behaviors they are noticing touch upon sensitive subjects, including employee mental health or the need for a leave of absence given the expansion of FMLA and other leave rights.

Employment attorneys at Payne & Fears offer private virtual training for companies, their HR professionals, and managers looking for guidance on remote management and performance training.