Managing the Invisible Worker Business struggles to catch up with the exploding number of remote workers. Developing best practices now will see entrepreneurs ahead of the curve and reaping the benefits.

By Sara Sutton

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A sticking point for companies considering whether to let employees work remotely (even occasionally) is the challenge of understanding what managing remote workers will actually look like. After all, the norm -- and historically the only option -- has been for people to work together under one roof. Accordingly, most common management techniques rely heavily on physical proximity and "face time." However, as more companies integrate location-independence through remote working, managerial tactics will need to shift. But, how?

In June, my companies, FlexJobs and, will host the TRaD* Works Conference (*Telecommuting, Remote, and Distributed), where this topic will be a key point of discussion. I spoke with TRaD Works panelists, Amy Freshman, from ADP's Global Workplace Engagement and HR Shared Services, and John O'Duinn, author of Distributed: Leading Global Teams, to answer a question many leaders have:

How should we support and train managers in a remote work environment?

Letting go of face time: what to focus on instead.

A key feature of twentieth-century management techniques is the reliance on face time as a performance indicator. People seen in their seats, during set hours of the day, are assumed to be working (whether or not it's true). But when teams are remote, how can a manager tell who's working? And what if some employees are in the office, while others work remotely?

Amy Freshman of ADP recommends a shift in focus. "The key lessons managers need to learn in order to successfully manage remote workers include building trust, providing direction, and being specific about goals and performance standards," says Freshman.

And John O'Duinn recommends managers, "figure out a management-by-objective technique that works for your company and use it for everyone, regardless of whether they work in an office or work-from-home."

Related: 4 Tools for High-Def Video Conferencing

Treat in-office and remote team members equally.

As alluded to above, both Freshman and John O'Duinn agree that a major component of successfully managing a team with in-office and remote workers is equal treatment. Freshman warns that it's, "easy to fall into the trap of out-of-sight, out-of-mind," but that, "leaders need to treat their associates equitably in and out of office."

And this doesn't just apply to teams with a mix of in-office and at-home workers, as O'Duinn points out, but to any dispersed company.

"If you are not in the same room as everyone else you work with, then you need to think, "we are all remoties,'" recommends O'Duinn. "If you have to take an elevator three or more floors, or have to walk between buildings in the rain, people start to behave as if the other person is remote and typically use email, phone, or IM instead."

In essence, regardless of how the team is distributed, managers will find more success by treating everyone as if they're remote workers. After all, most modern professionals already use virtual collaboration methods.

Related: 4 Effective Ways to Manage a Remote Team

Remote management techniques: useful for all managers.

The reality faced by modern day managers is vastly different than it was for previous generations. "In today's day and age, many organizations have dispersed teams, whether direct teams, partners, work streams, or project teams," explains Freshman. "They extend across different cities, states, countries and nations."

O'Duinn recommends that all managers, regardless of remote status, actively use things like regular one-on-one meetings, regular reviews with no surprises, recognition for work done well, trust, and delegation of authority.

The benefits, say Freshman and O'Duinn, will be realized by traditional and remote companies alike. Benefits such as:

  • Better managers: "Virtual connection and collaboration skills are necessary for managers (office based or remote)," says Freshman, "to build relationships, manage projects, drive accountability and deliver results." For managers to succeed today, they must know how to successfully collaborate through a variety of platforms, such as IM, web conferencing, and project management programs.

  • Improved retention: Remote working options are widely acknowledged to increase engagement and satisfaction by enabling people to have more control over where and when they work best. Additionally, O'Duinn says, "When everyone is used to remote management techniques, people can continue to work in an organization even if they have to relocate for personal or family reasons," removing the need to fill vacated positions and lose both money and institutional knowledge.

  • A wider applicant pool: Remote work allows companies to hire the best people for the job, regardless of location, as well as qualified people who cannot or don't want to commute to an office. "Think caregivers with young children or aging parents, and people with disabilities," says O'Duinn

  • Emergency preparedness: "If coworkers need to be in the one physical office to get work done, then a company has an organizational single-point-of-failure," says O'Duinn. Learning to collaborate in a virtual environment means teams can, "continue to operate even if the company's physical building is closed or if transportation to and from the office is disrupted by snowstorms, earthquakes, or sports events."

Related: Loss of Snow Days May Create the Next Generation of Remote Workers

The future is now -- almost.

When it comes to remote work, the statistics show that the future is already here to some degree, with 37 percent of U.S. workers working from home occasionally already. The number of people working remotely on a regular basis has grown 103 percent since 2005. That will grow over the coming years, because 50 percent of U.S. workers hold remote work-compatible jobs. So, whether your company has remote workers or not, it's necessary to become well-versed in remote management techniques. Chances are, at least some of your team members will be working remotely in the near future.

Wavy Line
Sara Sutton

CEO & Founder of FlexJobs

Sara Sutton is the CEO and founder of FlexJobs, an award-winning, innovative career website for telecommuting, flexible, freelance and part-time job listings, and founder of, a one-stop resource for remote teams and companies, and the 1 Million for Work Flexibility initiative. She was named as a Young Global Leader (class of 2014) by the World Economic Forum for her work in technology and the employment fields. Sutton is a graduate of UC Berkeley and currently lives in Boulder, Colo. Sutton is also the creator of The TRaD Works Conference, dedicated to helping companies leverage the benefits of telecommuting, remote and distributed teams.

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