Remote Employees: Keeping Watch from Afar

Business experts discuss what they do to stay successful while managing remote employees.

Yahoo Chief Executive Marissa Mayer made headlines last spring when a company memo summoning remote workers back into the office was leaked to the press. Mayer’s decision, which she continues to stand by, stirred a public debate on the pros and cons of telecommuting.

Considering her well-known status as a new mom, Mayer represents a workforce sector that has aggressively campaigned for a more flexible work/life balance. Adding to the irony is the fact that Mayer, who was a star at Google before joining Yahoo in 2012, built her career in an industry whose very products and services have popularized the idea of working remotely.

“As a female executive, I thought to myself, ‘Aw, don’t do that,’” says Kim Shepherd, author of the book, “The Bite Me School of Management,” and CEO of Decision Toolbox, a 100 percent virtual company with employees working remotely across the U.S. “What she’s saying, essentially, is working in-house is better than virtual, and it’s just not true. If you aren’t building widgets, you can be a virtual business. Just hire correctly, put the proper corporate culture in place and manage your employees differently.”

Throughout the ’90s, Decision Toolbox operated as a traditional brick-and-mortar recruiting firm in Southern California. But after 9/11, when Shepherd watched 65 percent of her competitors go out of business, she cut costs by moving into a smaller office building where employees convened once a week. Shortly thereafter, Shepherd made the bold decision to get rid of an office environment altogether. “It allowed us to scale, and scalability in my profession is gospel,” she explains. “We now have over 100 employees who are 100 percent virtual.”

Ramona Bilgram, manager of Human Resources Services at Insperity Inc., is in a similar situation. Bilgram lives in St. Louis, but she manages clients through the Houston-based company’s Leawood office remotely. Her main objective is “making sure our work situation enhances the client experience and doesn’t take away from it,” she says. “Having communication strategies in place and clear performance expectations are critical to our success.”

Fast Fact
In 2010, Microsoft conducted an online survey among 3,600 professionals in 26 cities nationwide to assess their opinions about remote work. Kansas City ranked No. 5 among the company’s top 10 cities for telecommuting. More than half (58 percent) of the KC workers polled said they were more productive working from home than in the office.

Insperity specializes in HR outsourcing and has a content management system that enables Bilgram and her staff to keep tabs on who’s doing what regardless if they are working at the office, from home or within a client’s building. “We have a number of homegrown technology systems, but we also use some of the Microsoft products like Lync to keep in touch on a regular basis,” Bilgram says.

Yet, even with the marvels of modern-day technology, managing remote employees is still a challenge. Regus, the world’s largest provider of flexible workspace, surveyed more than 26,000 professionals across 90+ countries in January 2013 and found that 50 percent of KC executives polled were “worried about how remote workers use their time.” About 64 percent believed working remotely slowed junior employee development, whereas only 32 percent felt it helped them become more responsible.

“I don’t think it’s a matter of employers not trusting their employees—it’s a matter of them not trusting themselves,” Shepherd suggests. “They don’t trust that they can lead from a virtual standpoint. To do it right, you have to lead with your heart instead of your head, and that’s scary for most executives.”

To successfully manage remote employees, Shepherd recommends focusing on “The Three P’s”—performance, productivity and profit. Each component can be tracked virtually, she says. Employers just need know how.

“It’s the difference between monitoring activity and monitoring results,” according to Shepherd. “If you put key performance indicators in place by which you manage your employees—things like customer satisfaction score, the amount of repeat business you’re getting and so forth—you can see the activity going on when employees are in the cubicles. But when you are a virtual company, you don’t see the activity. All you see are the results of those activities.”

Bilgram agrees. “Telecommuting is more effective if it’s based on results, not so much the activities themselves,” she says. “Productivity can be more challenging to monitor when folks are remote. You have to make your expectations clear to your employees. ‘Here are the results we’re looking for; here’s how we’re going to track that.’ And it’s good to know the work habits of those employees before you offer a telecommuting option.”

Regus offers a unique alternative for businesses that have a virtual component. The company provides executive suites, business centers and video communication services for traveling professionals or those who live too far away to access their headquarters.

It operates more than 1,500 locations globally and has been in the KC market for more than a decade. It presently has eight locations in Kansas City, Mo., Overland Park and Leawood, Kan.

“Typically, we go into a market, set up space in Class A office buildings and build out 60-70 offices in various shapes and sizes,” says Regus Kansas City Manager Spencer Jones, who also works and manages remotely.

“We then provide a receptionist and lobby area to meet and greet clients and their guests—anything the mobile worker needs to support their business and what they’re doing out of their laptop,” Jones continues. “We provide a more professional work environment that gives people the flexibility to come and go, and pay for what they need when they need it. The management team knows their employees are in an environment where they can focus and get work done without the distraction of being at home, in a hotel or at a coffee shop.”

Story by Kathryn Jones