A table in a restaurant that has a laptop, coffee, sunglasses and a makeup case on it.
PHOTO: Jack Shainsky

In just two years, half of your workforce will do work remotely. Remote work is a way of life and pretty much an expectation today. It provides a flexibility so important that many workers say they’d leave their current jobs just for the opportunity to work remotely. A critical factor in building a strong contributing remote worker is their relationship with managers. 

CMSWire caught up with people involved in remote work environments and asked them to share tips on how managers and employees can get the most out of their remote-working relationships.

Remote Workers Feel Shunned, Worry A Lot

The remote-working relationship for many employees, though, remains a work-in-progress. A Harvard Business Review study last November polled 1,153 employees who told researchers “they worry that coworkers say bad things behind their backs, make changes to projects without telling them in advance, lobby against them, and don’t fight for their priorities.” Further, they report that common workplace challenges can take a few days or more to resolve (84 percent) and even weeks (47 percent). 

“And these problems don’t just affect relationships,” researchers wrote. “Remote employees report larger, negative impacts of these challenges than their onsite colleagues on results, including productivity, costs, deadlines, morale, stress and retention.”

Related Article: Bringing Your Remote Workforce Into the Fold

Get to Know Your Remote Workers

The first step in recognizing what motivates your remote workers and leads to healthy manager-employee relationships is to learn about each remote worker on an individual basis. Kara Longo Korte, director of project management at TetraVX, noted that some employees like public recognition, some like individual recognition and some like both. “After understanding what motivates an individual, you have to assess what timing works best for them,” Longo Korte said. Some employees, she added, are morning people and perform best when they start their day off with motivation, while others can’t talk until they’ve had their coffee. “You can begin to motivate your employees once you establish the best time to reach them and the type of motivation that they respond best to,” Longo Korte said.

What motivates one person won’t move another, according to Jon Brodsky, country manager for finder.com. “Our leadership team takes time and effort to get to know everyone reporting to them,” he said, “and are able to identify their motivational triggers.” 

It’s often good to take stock of why your employees work from home to begin with. “The chances are they do so to have more free time and more flexibility in their lives,” said James Rice, head of digital marketing for WikiJob. “So try to give them as long as you can to complete a task, and if something is really pressing, check that it's OK for them to work on it, and be very clear that they should tell you if they have existing commitments, and that it's no problem if they do.”

Related Article: The Dual Rise of the Digital Workplace and Remote Work

Be Present and Motivating

Sireesha Narumanchi, a career blogger who has been working remotely for more than eight years, said having a supportive manager makes all the difference. “As a remote worker, being self-motivated counts big time but getting good support from your manager can increase your productivity hugely,” Narumanchi said. “Sending regular feedback emails about the work done, sharing helpful resources to increase productivity, checking if they have/need any help or suggestions regarding any aspect of work can make a big difference in communication with the remote team.” 

Narumanchi said her manager sends regular emails with client feedback and gives tips about how to increase quality of work. “This has helped me to focus more on the quality of work and give better results,” she said. “Constant motivation and being present to help are two [of the] biggest factors in building a strong relationship between remote worker and the manager.”

Related Article: IBM Reportedly Ends Remote Working as Layoff Rumors Grow

Communicate Effectively and Regularly

Communication may be a key tenet of the manager-worker relationship in a remote environment, but it’s how you communicate that matters, said Priyanka Prakash, lending and credit expert at Fundera. When Prakash managed a remote team at a former job, she said the most valuable way to motivate her reports was to have a daily check-in video call. “Video is key,” she said, “because it makes both parties take the call more seriously and come fully prepared. During the call, we discussed the previous day's work, the current day's agenda, and any questions or things the individual was blocked on. The video component and the fact that this meeting occurred daily made my reports feel like they were fully part of the onsite team.”

Communication is an answer that comes up often when asking about improving remote-working relationships. Beyond the “communicate better” mandate, reward your remote workers for actually being good at communication, said Rachel Andrea Go, independent content strategist. “Everything should be transparent and always open to questions,” Andrea Go said. “It takes guts to ask a question that may be seen as obvious in a channel where it's recorded (i.e. Trello), so if someone asks a question I make it a point to thank them for their diligence, especially if we've just started working together.”

Related Article: 5 Ways to Bring Out the Best in Your Remote Workforce

Offer Recognition for Jobs Well Done

If your remote workers feel left out, it’s because, well, they are. In-house employees bond more easily, and recognition can sometimes escape remote workers. Erica Scott, operations manager for ezLandlordForms, said in a recent meeting with remote employees she deliberately pointed out something great each employee did that month. “I let them know that their work mattered and that we have rough days, but they are doing a great job,” Scott said. “When that meeting ended, I could tell everyone felt more positive and work ethic improved. … I think daily communication with a lot of positive reinforcement boosts employees productivity.”

Encourage Remote Socializing

One of the biggest things remote workers miss out on is workplace socializing and social engagements outside of work. So bring remote employees in on these, said Ryne Higgins, senior manager of ecommerce at Peacock Alley

Set up a “Just for Fun” messaging channel in your organization’s enterprise social network. Create a team-wide message channel or email thread specifically designated for non-work related banter. “This could include jokes, memes, new songs or videos, or any other topics that brings some fun to the workplace,” Higgins said. 

“Traditional offices naturally have this outlet by nature of being in close proximity, so provide the same opportunity for remote workers through virtual means. As a leader, you’ll need to model appropriate use of this channel to ensure it is not a distraction, but the casual use of such a channel can make remote team members feel more included," Higgins added. 

Host a “Remote Happy Hour.” Just because your team is in different cities doesn’t mean they can’t have drinks together, Higgins said. Arrange concurrent happy hours at bars local to your team members, and have them video conference in to enjoy some virtual time together. “Although it takes a little coordination ahead of time, the novelty of having the remote team take part in more traditional workplace fun can do wonders in bringing your remote team closer,” Higgins said.

Related Article: How to Nurture a Positive Company Culture with Remote Workers

Measure Performance Through Deliverables

Build a communication and accountability system that measures and rewards based on completions of tasks rather than hours worked, said Tom Dannemiller, CEO of SABIA Inc. “Too many managers,” Dannemiller said, “are concerned that they are not getting a full 40 hours of work from a remote employee. This measure is not only impossible to track but irrelevant. The key to successful remote work is for everyone to understand their deliverables and to measure performance by performance to those deliverables.”

Ensure your business processes are well defined and documented, and you can track how well they are followed. “You cannot directly control the behavior of remote workers,” Dannemiller said, “so they are managed by measuring how well they adhere to established processes, and how well they meet agreed upon deadlines.”

Tie In Culture for Remote Employees Through Values

Most companies include company values alongside their mission statements. Use these values to help build culture remotely, said Brodsky. “It can be hard to build a strong culture when much of the team is remote. Here at finder, we have a set of five values that underpin everything we do and why we do it. We set reminders and rewards about these values, and they have actually been the foundation to the tight-knit, collaborative culture that exists in the organization today.”

Related Article: What Makes a Good Remote Boss Anyway?

Final Thoughts

All of our sources offer the same main piece of advice, regular communication is the key to successful manager-remote employee relationships. It's important to be aware that while remote employees like the freedom of a quiet home where work gets done efficiently, regular communication matters. “Regular communication is probably the single most important thing,” Rice said. “These are people who are mainly working from home, often alone. If they feel like no one cares about them, they probably won't stick around too long. So check in with them: ask how their projects are progressing and how they are doing generally. Feature them in the ‘meet the team' section of your website. If they live nearby, meet them in person.” Somehow, some way, communicate.