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Managing the remote worker

 
October 2008
Anton Levchuk, Personnel Management

With more of us wanting to run our own race rather than the rat race, remote working is now used as a tool to attract and retain good staff. But managing employees working outside the office is a real skill, says Anton Levchuk. Remote working is commonplace in business and managing it effectively is an increasingly desirable talent. This change in working practices is something that managers have to adapt to. HR can provide invaluable advice and support to both manager and employee during this process to ensure that everyone is happy and productive.

The reality is that despite remote working having a very good press i.e. constant tea breaks and lie-ins - it can actually be very stressful and difficult for the employee and employer if it is not properly structured. More often than not, the problem is that it is something that is agreed without real consideration. For an employer, the positive points of having remote staff are fairly obvious - saving on desk space, hardware and other resources are just a few examples. More importantly, it can also help a company retain skilled staff, attract new talent or allow the business to gain a physical presence in a geographical area that they may not have an office.

A remote worker does not necessarily have to be someone who comes into the office once in a blue moon though. Flexible working can involve a member of staff working remotely some of the time, and is becoming ever more popular. Recent research by telecoms firm Astra suggests that employees could save 55 hours a year more than two whole days if they were equipped to work from home just one day a week, so the business benefits are clearly there.

And the government is supporting this trend - provided an employee has worked for a company for 26 weeks continuously, they have a statutory right to ask for a flexible working arrangement if they have a child under six, or are a carer. Indeed, following the recent Walsh Review by the Department of Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, the government plans to extend this right to parents with children aged 16 and under (albeit with a possible delay, following this week's news). Whilst it is important to stress that employers do not have to provide an employee with flexible working, many now see it as a positive step. Remote working should be straightforward to arrange. Legally the employee needs to submit an application to change their working category under the terms of the companies Flexible Working Policy. The employees contract will be changed prior to the employees' remote working environment being agreed and implemented.

How to make it work

One of the key problems with remote working is that the role is often poorly defined. It is an easy mistake to make. Both employer and employee need to agree on how the relationship will work together, so that there is no confusion. Being able to work from home or from a remote location does not necessarily mean that an employee can work any hours they like - there needs to be a clearly understood working structure right from the start.

Communication is probably the most important factor in making sure that the relationship between manager and remote worker runs smoothly. Remote working can be a lonely business without a proactive manager; this can lead to confusion and stagnation very quickly and even a bit of paranoia. But this is not just about communicating successfully during the working day. As a manager it's important to get a good understanding of the person you are managing. Taking the initiative to talk through the role with them can be really constructive.

Working away from the office has become possible predominantly due to the improvements in technology. Emails and instant messaging are useful, but the fact that employees now have the capability to access their office PC, or the office network from anywhere thanks to remote access technology means that employers and employees have more choice about how they work and where they work.

There are also many people who do not necessarily work from home or in an office. Many employees are road warriors, sales staff who work from their laptop, smartphone or PDA. This can be even harder to manage in a structured way. This is where it is important for more regular face-to-face meetings where there is no opportunity to dismiss a scheduled call, or allow scheduled update reports to slip.

Setting goals

It is important for anyone to work to objectives. Maintaining a clear set of goals, laid out on a daily, weekly or possibly monthly basis is essential. This is another useful way of maintaining control - instigating guidelines and targets will help to focus and structure their schedule and yours. The main objective is to try and stop anyone feeling that they are 'out of the loop'.

Whether it is office politics or a nightmare commute that forces someone to want to work from home they need to understand that it is not a panacea. During the initial discussions it may well be that a wider discussion is required about how they enjoy work and their working environment identifying what their personal objective is for working remotely can raise some interesting discussion points.

Managers should also not shy away from deciding that the individual is not the right character to successfully work away from the office. This can be a difficult discussion but managers will usually know whether the individual will take the role seriously. Indeed, many remote workers believe that they put in more hours while working at home than they did when they had an office job. However, there are some who will find the draw of the kettle and the remote control too difficult to resist.

Former CEO of Chrysler, Lee Iacocca famously said that "management is nothing more than motivating other people". All this advice should essentially work towards that main goal of keeping a remote worker motivated and enthused. Offices may be stuffy, stressful and full of distractions but they can provide energy, focus and inspiration. Sitting at home with only the cat to talk to and a comedy mug to laugh at does not create the same atmosphere. However, with the right goals and drive most people can be just as productive and effective working from home as their office-based colleagues.

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