There’s only one way to manage a remote employee

Out of sight, front of mind

An employee knocks on your office door. She’s worked for you for a few years. And she has a big request. “I want to work remotely from home,” she says. “I need to be there when my kids get home from school.” She has a long commute. Her husband also works. They’re juggling many balls in the air. She promises to get her job done remotely. You’ve never had a remote employee before. She’s really good. You don’t want to lose her. What do you do? How can you manage this person when she’s not in the office?

You don’t know the answer — but this is not unusual. No one knows how productive an employee will be when they’re out of the office. Some people can work just as effectively from home; others need to be in an office environment, both for the social aspect and because their job demands that they’re on-site with the action.

You don’t want everyone working from home. But then again, you don’t want to say no to this valuable employee. Lots of people will advise you on how to manage her when she’s not in the office.

In the end, however, there’s really only one way to manage this person: you must treat her, and she must behave, as if she’s in the office all the time.

It’s as simple as that. So what does this mean?

Expect the same level of availability

It means that if you or anyone else needs her, she’s available. Just like she would be if she was sitting at her desk. She’s got her mobile phone at the ready. She can attend meetings like her on-site colleagues. She’s on duty and ready for any question, any task, as if she’s in the office. And if you need her to come into the office, she should be prepared to do so. She should also be willing to work maybe one or two days a week in the office because sometimes being there is just psychologically better than not being there. Her workload and responsibilities shouldn’t change. In other words, you shouldn’t notice that she’s not there.

Empower remote workers with technology

This was much more difficult even 10 years ago. But today, there’s enough affordable technology available to enable that remote worker to work as if she’s in the office. There are filing sharing services like Microsoft OneDrive, Google Drive and Dropbox. There are project and collaboration applications like Office 365 and Basecamp to share tasks and information. There are communications tools such as Skype, and Lync to speak, see and share desktops. There even are popular applications to remotely connect, including GoToMyPC and LogMeIn.

These apps today work on any device, from phone to tablet to laptop to desktop. Data entered in one place can be retrieved and updated from anywhere else as long as there’s an Internet connection (and most of the country today is covered by 3G and 4G networks).

Do what it takes to recruit and retain the best workers

The economy is slowly growing and the unemployment rate is falling. One of the biggest issues facing small businesses this year will be retaining their best people. And there are many great people who desire to work, at least partially, from home in order to have a better quality of life. If it’s possible, then let them do it.

To take advantage of the best talent out there, you have to accept and adapt. Yes, you should enable your employees to work remotely if they want to. Yes, there are great tools to help you do this. But remember, there’s only one way to manage them: as if they’re in the office all the time. As long as both you and your employee agree on that, you have every chance of making that arrangement succeed.

Gene Marks
Gene Marks writes a daily column for the Washington Post on business and public policy. He also writes weekly for Forbes, Entrepreneur Magazine, Inc. Magazine, and periodically for The Huffington Post and Gene also regularly appears on Fox News, MSNBC, Sirius XM Radio and ABC radio. His work reaches hundreds of thousands of business owners and executives each week. Gene is a Certified Public Accountant and runs the Marks Group PC - a 10-person technology and management consulting firm located near Philadelphia. He spent nine years with the international firm KPMG, most recently as Senior Manager. Gene speaks frequently to business groups so they can better understand the trends affecting their businesses and - most importantly - the actions they should take to continue to grow and profit.