Leading Remote Workers

Leading “remote workers” or people working outside of the office is a challenge some may think is in the future, but it’s actually a growing trend now. A recent statistic says that 56% of global companies allow for remote workers. Even solopreneurs and small business owners like my company are working through the issue. So let’s talk about some concerns and considerations when leading remote workers.

I was recently interviewed by Alyson with Stake: The Leadership Podcast on the issue of leading remote workers. I’ve included a video of the episode here. The excerpted transcript follows.

Baby Boomers, Small Business Owners Leading Remote Workers

Alyson Van Hooser:
Hey there everybody. I’m so excited about today’s podcast — today’s guest is extra special. Phillip Van Hooser is my father-in-law. But Phil is also my business partner. He is my business partner, he’s a mentor, and today we’re going to talk about something that I know will be valuable for you as a leader.

Alyson:
A lot of people today are experiencing the challenges that come with people working outside of the office — remote workers. A lot of people think that working remotely is a future challenge but a recent statistic says that 56% of global companies allow remote work. So today we’re going to talk about the challenges for leaders of remote workers.

Alyson:
Phillip Van Hooser, will you go ahead and introduce yourself?

Phillip Van Hooser:
Well, thanks Alyson. This is special for me too, actually. I don’t know that I’ve ever been interviewed by my children or my in-laws, so for the rest of this conversation, it has nothing to do with family. It has everything to do with professionalism. Does that work for you?

Alyson:
Yes.

Phil:
From an introductory standpoint, I would simply say that for the past 32 years I’ve been an entrepreneur. I’ve owned this training and development company that we’ll talk more about in a few minutes, but there was a life before that as well. When I came out of college, I worked in major corporations, large companies. I was a human resource management professional leading up to a manager and director of the human resources. My industry was manufacturing, so I was working in heavy manufacturing facilities where there were as few as 150 employees all the way up to 1200+ people in one particular locale.

Phil:
I did that for the first eight, nine years of my professional career, and then decided that it was time to start Van Hooser Associates. And so for the last 32 years, I’ve been working with groups and organizations trying to help them build their leaders and their leadership culture. Of course, we were fortunate enough to have you join us 14, 15 months ago, and so the next generation of Van Hooser Associates is in the works.

Generational Perspective on Remote Workers

Alyson:
The topic that we want to focus on today is how does leadership look different when it comes to remote workers. I’ve been with Phil he said 15 months. A few months ago I had my big annual evaluation, and the thing that I ended on was asking if I could be a remote employee. Now, I’m a Millennial — I’m 30 years old. I had been here about a year, and like many other Millennials and Gen Z employees (those who are 24 and younger) we’re coming into the workplace saying, “I don’t want to work in a traditional office.” People have different feelings about remote workers. Phil, talk about your initial reaction whenever I asked that — what were you feeling, what were you thinking, and what was your process after that conversation?

Phil:
Well, you mentioned that you were a Millennial and that was your thought process. But I think it’s probably also appropriate for me to tell your audience that I am a Baby Boomer, so with different experiences, different generational experiences, and mindsets. Obviously, there’s going to be a transition.

Phil:
A couple of things that your listeners need to know is that, though I’m a Baby Boomer and though I have been a manager in corporate America, I think it’s fairly safe to say that I’m a little more progressive than maybe Baby Boomers in general are perceived to be.

Alyson:
I would agree.

Phil:
Now, I want to stress the perception, because we’re so quick to identify generational differences and then paint everybody with a broad brush. All Baby Boomers think this way. All Millennials think that way. I don’t happen to believe that. I believe there are exceptions to everything, therefore we need to get to know what those exceptions are so that we can fully understand.

Phil:
Now I come back to your comment in the evaluation, and yes, we did conduct a formal evaluation. Yes, you are my daughter in law, but you’re also an employee, and you’re also an employee that’s growing in the business. It’s really important that we evaluate all aspects of performance, not just the physical performance, but also the emotional mindset around that performance. When you came to me and asked — “What do you think about me working mobily, or working remotely?” — I sensed that you were hesitant about bringing it up because you didn’t know how I was going to respond.

Alyson:
That’s true. I was nervous going into the conversation. I was thinking, “Am I going to ask, or am I not going to ask?” I ended up doing it. But yes, you’re right, I was nervous about it.

Phil:
Well, for your listeners, it may be important for them to know that even though you reference working in the office, the office consists of three of us, so it’s not a huge office complex. The office also consists of a basement office in our home. Now that’s the way we’ve run our business. When I say we, I’m talking about my wife and I have run this business for 30 plus years — out of our home. It’s served our purposes well as we raised children, but there were a lot of other benefits. I can get up and go to work at any moment in time. I don’t have to drive across town. It’s cheaper, and so on.

Phil:
I only bring this up, because that is my mindset going into your question. So to your question, a year in to this new relationship — “Can I work mobily?” — I guess human nature asks, “Is there a problem? Are we not getting along?” Frankly, I didn’t think that that was a problem. Then I had to ask myself the question, “Will this work for what we’re trying to accomplish longterm?” You may recall that I said, “You’re going to have to give me some time to think about this.”

Phil:
I’m not one of these people that wants to make a real snap decision. I can if I have to, but I didn’t see that as being one of those things that was necessary. I said, “I’ll get back to you in a few weeks.” Now, I said ‘weeks’, because I wanted to make sure that this wasn’t a snap decision on your part. If you just woke up and said, “I think I’d like to work mobily,” are you going to feel that way a week or a month from now? It gave us both an opportunity to process.

Phil:
Here are a couple of things that you need to understand that were going through my mind. I think it’ll be important for your listeners to understand this as well.

Alyson:
Let me just say this real quick. As you’re listening to this, if you are thinking about asking to work remotely, I want you to consider what Phil is about to say. What your leader or the decision maker may be thinking, because that may change how you approach it, or how you see the reaction.

Phil:
That’s a very important point, and Alyson I’m glad you made it, because all too often we see whatever we’re about to do from one perspective, and that perspective is ours. I’ve learned that to be more effective in almost anything that you do, you need to see it from multiple perspectives. Certainly your own, you need to know why you’re wanting to do it. But you also need to understand what may be on the other side. And then of course if there are other people that are involved in the process, we need to process that as well.

Phil:
I start thinking about the whole process of working mobily, especially as it related to our unique circumstance. We’re trying to get you up to speed as quickly as we can on our business. My first question was, what are the drawbacks? It’s very important that you know that I was not concerned about work ethic. A lot of Baby Boomers who might be approached by some of their employees about working remotely, really hear that as, “I don’t want to work so hard,” or, “I don’t want you to watch me working hard. I want to be off doing my own thing and working my own schedule.” I really wasn’t worried about that. Over the last year, I knew that you were willing to do whatever needed to be done within whatever time frame. So I wasn’t concerned about the work itself. It was more how that work would be done and the quality of it, and would we be able to follow it.

(If it is an issue, here’s some guidance on how to discuss poor performance with an employee.)

Easing Concerns for Leading Remote Workers

Out of Sight, Out of Mind?

Phil:
The first thing I wondered about was this … I’ll call it the ‘out of sight, out of mind.’ In other words, if I’m not thinking about you, am I doing you justice by giving you the training and the counseling and the coaching that may be necessary in any kind of employee/employer relationship? I can get real caught up in what I’m doing and forget, because you’re not in the office. I can forget that maybe you’re out there doing your thing as well. Now, you may have seen that as being a positive. You may have said, “Okay, I don’t want to be interrupted by Phil all the time with the thought that he’s having, or with a suggestion he’s making. I want to be able to work on my things, my projects, and then be able to come back to him in a scheduled time.” I understood that.

Loss of Synergy?

Phil:
The second thing is we found great value in having you there to ask questions. “Why are we doing this? Why aren’t we doing this? Have you thought about doing it this way?” I consider that to be the synergistic approach at its finest. If you define synergy; synergy is the sum of the individual parts, when brought together create a better outcome. Well, Susan and I had been working together for 30 plus years. In many ways, she knew what I was thinking and I knew what she was thinking without even conversing, if you will.

Phil:
That wasn’t true with you. You came in and you didn’t know what we were thinking. We didn’t know what you were thinking. We had to talk more, but in so talking, there was this synergy. “Oh man, that’s a great idea. I hadn’t thought about that, Alyson.” You may have said to us or may have thought at some point, “Oh my goodness, I didn’t even realize that was something I needed to learn or be more aware of.” That’s the synergy. If we take you out of this environment, are we going to lose that? That was a major consideration or major concern for me.

Effective Project Coordination?

Phil:
Another thing I started thinking about was project coordination. You know that we had you working on a number of projects early on, and you knew that some of those projects were sequenced projects. Were we going to be able to coordinate those projects? Well, that’s more of an organizational concern than it was anything else. In other words, if I’m not able to do that, that’s not necessarily your fault. That’s my fault. Now I have to start thinking, “How am I going to coordinate more effectively?”

Lack of Performance Awareness?

Phil:
That leads, then to performance awareness. I have to not only have standards of performance, I have to be aware of those standards of performance. In other words, I need to know what you’re doing, how far along you are. Are you ahead of the process, ahead of where I thought you would be, or behind? All those are just performance awareness considerations.

Working in Isolation?

Phil:
As I was thinking about your question, I wasn’t just thinking yes or no. I was thinking yes and, or yes but. Then that brought me to frankly, was my greatest concern. I feared it for you, because I’d experienced it for myself. Let’s just call this the fear of isolation.

Phil:
I remember 30 plus years ago so very well. Working in a major corporation with several hundred people, I interacted with, not only daily, but literally hourly, and oftentimes on a minute-by-minute-by-minute basis. That was cool. I enjoyed that. That was my personality, and I know it to be your personality as well. Then I left that environment to start this business, and that next day, what happened? Where are the people? It was a shock to my system. Again, isolation. It took me a while to work through that. It took me a while to know, “Am I going to like this? Is this going to work?”

Phil:
Well, obviously it did work out. I liked what I was doing more than I feared the isolation of doing it, so I figured out a way to make that happen. But honestly I worried about that a little bit. You had gone from an organization of several people to this organization of three people. And now we’re going to cast you off and put you on an island someplace with one person. Those were some of the things that were going through my mind as we were considering this particular process.

(Like what you’re reading? Subscribe to the blog and get our bonus welcome gift!)

Why Would Someone Want to Work Remotely?

Alyson:
Let’s talk a little bit about what my thoughts were. Why would someone want to work remotely? What would be the pros and the cons? You said you wanted to make sure that this wasn’t a knee jerk reaction. In our business, we work one-on-one to develop leaders, and so Phil and I spent a lot of time researching what issues leaders are facing, or what trends are happening in the business world. One of those trends, like I said at the beginning, is remote workers. That does create a different … I don’t know if I would say challenge… but it’s something different that leaders have to deal with.

Alyson:
For me, I’m on board with everything that you said about the synergy of the team. Regarding being afraid to work alone — I’m reading that a lot of remote workers who get out there by themselves then say, “Hold up, I need some human interaction.” That is why we’ve seen places to rent space for the day because even though an employee might work best alone, they still want to be surrounded by activity.

Phil:
Even if they don’t rent space, they go to Starbucks or some place similar.

Alyson:
Absolutely.

We want to hear from you on working remotely or leading those that do. What has worked, what hasn’t? Comment below and thanks for adding to the conversation!

Actionable Process for Leading Remote Workers

Alyson:
Now I’ve been doing this for a couple months and I haven’t gotten to the place where I want that yet. Right now I’m good being alone. I think that eventually, yes, it will come to the point where I want to get out and be around more activity. Sometimes that actually helps me focus better, but right now I’m good working alone.

Alyson:
Let me touch on a few of the things that I’ve read in the research. They’ve also found that remote workers are struggling with anxiety more. You talked about managing performance. The articles that I’ve read … say that remote employees, once they’re removed from the office, become hyper aware. They think their boss is thinking that they’re at home not doing anything so they actually overwork themselves. They work more hours at home than they do in the office, because they’re trying to make up for whatever doubt might be in the leader’s mind. It also creates, in some cases, more of a work/life balance issue because they are constantly on. If they wake up early, they’re working early before the kids get up, and then they’re working when the kids go to bed. They’re trying to balance it all, so it’s creating more of a need for people to figure out how to manage their time and deal with work/life balance issues.

Alyson:
That covers why I asked to be able to work singularly, and then come together and have more formal communication. That allows me to hold on to what was said, where are we going, things are more concrete. We all know if you work in an office, there’s a lot of pass by communication. Things can get lost. Not that that was happening here, but that was one of the things that I would like — a more structured communication environment.

Alyson:
I wanted to work by myself, have that flexibility. I like being able to work at eight o’clock at night sometimes if I wanted to go have lunch with my kids or something, so there is that flexibility. I’m working on a new book, and my editor works from home. She was saying the same thing a couple of days ago. She said, “I like to take an exercise break and then come back and go to work.” Yes, people, especially Millennials … well, Gen X too. Gen X, Gen Y, and Gen Z are all saying that flexibility is so important to them, so leaders, you have to see that this will probably become an even bigger part of your business.

Phil:
Let me interrupt and say this. I accept the research for what it is, but research measures a point in time. But we also have to recognize that things change over time. There is some research now, I can’t quote a source at this moment, that says that many of those organizations that were so free with allowing people to work mobily now are changing for two basic reasons.

Trends Change, Performance & Communication Standards Shouldn’t

Phil:
Number one, employees are saying, “I want to come back and be a part. I feel like even though I work in this organization, I’m not a part of the organization, because I don’t see what’s going on for those people that are onsite.” That’s the desire of the employee, but the desire of the employer is that people come back in so that we don’t have to have that anxiety to make sure that they are doing what they need to do. That’s why you know that we set up some standards, some performance standards and communication standards, if you will. When we eventually did say, “Yeah, let’s go try it. Let’s experiment with that.” If you want to talk about that, we can.

Alyson:
Yes, so let’s finish up with that. Let’s talk about how leadership is different. What can leaders, what should leaders put in place? What have we experienced? Then we’ll talk about what other organizations are doing to best manage, best lead remote workers.

Phil
You know very well that I stress two things in my conversations with leaders — two things are paramount and foundational for a leader to be effective. Leaders need to be good planners and good communicators. I would be a hypocrite if I didn’t practice what I preached. So the first thing that we did was talk about, “How can we plan this most effectively?” We started establishing goals and objectives, and we communicated those goals and objectives over the next week, the next month, the next quarter.

Alyson:
Let me just give you all a practical tool. Here’s what we’ve done. We set up a bullet list of the daily and weekly performance expectations, tasks that have to be done. Then three times a week, Monday, Wednesday, Friday mornings, I call and check-in. First thing in the morning, eight o’clock, we talk about what’s been done, what’s coming up, do we need anything from each other, and if there’s anything else that has come up. If you’re thinking, “Okay, how do I even manage this?” There’s a tool right there. Line out all of the duties, and then create a schedule on when you’re going to touch base.

Phil:
Absolutely, and it works well too, I might add. The second thing I would say is that we have access to each other’s calendars so we know exactly what we’re doing at any moment in time, and because we have access, and of course I’m talking about online access to calendars, we have opportunities to build ourselves into that calendar.

Phil:
It’s not unusual for me to be on the road. I travel a lot in my work. Alyson travels too. She has access to my calendar. It’s not unusual for me to open up my calendar and see that I have a scheduled meeting with her. For example, I looked at my calendar a few days ago and I saw that I was going to be doing a podcast today at a particular moment in time. That’s all part of the plan too, so that when she needs me or vice versa, when I need her, we’re going to put on the calendar, and we’re not going to make it a pass by conversation.

Phil:
We’re also not going to assume we’ll just save all this stuff up and cover it at some particular moment in time. She mentioned that there’s at least three times a week; Monday, Wednesday, Friday, but there are also other independent opportunities, not to mention of course, if something just unique and individual and pressing pops up. The next thing you know, I’m getting a text, you’re getting a text, getting a telephone call, and we’re seven minutes away so it’s not unusual for her to pop into the office and say, “Okay, got this going on. It was easier to tell you about it than it was to send you an email.” Those are some of the things that we’re doing.

Alyson:
Let me just also emphasize something. One of the great things about remote workers, if you choose to lead well, is that you will probably communicate better and more often than when an employee works in the office.When you’re in the office, you’re probably not sitting down and having a purposeful conversation with your employees, because you see them every day, you make pass by comments about things. Think about this for just a second. How many times in … a week, a month, six months, do you sit down individually with your employees and talk about exactly what they’re doing, what’s going well, what they’re struggling with?

Alyson:
I know for me as a leader, when I was supervising people in different positions, I was not asking them three times a week about what’s going well, what are you struggling with, how can I help you?

Phil:
Or telling them three times a week what they need to be focused on, what’s coming, and what you expect of them.

Alyson:
Right. It’s an opportunity for leaders to be really intentional about communication, and even engage them at a higher level, which we all know improves culture, it improves retention rates, all of that.

Phil:
And performance.

Alyson:
Absolutely.

Phil:
Remember, I’m the old Baby Boom manager here. I’m always looking for bottom line performance, so that can never be ignored.

Alyson:
You can do this with your employees in-house too, but we’re talking about remote workers. I wonder, and this is just a thought, but I wonder if performance is better managed with remote employees, because communication is more intentional, because there’s more of a focus on what’s happening, what’s not happening?

Phil:
I think it’s possible, but I also think, just like we talk about remote employees need to be communicated with, training needs to take place. Remember, this is new and unique for Baby Boomers or older Gen Xers. They too need to be trained and plan to be communicated with. You can’t just assume it will work every time. It’s got to be both parties committed to the process.

Alyson:
Right, and keeping communication open the entire time. Let’s wrap things up for today. We had a Millennial come in and asked to be a remote worker. We talked about what that felt like from both perspectives. We talked about the strengths and opportunities from both perspectives. Then, we talked about leadership. What is the same with remote workers that it is with employees that are in the office? Planning and communication is still absolutely critical.

Phil:
Critical.

Alyson:
We talked about positive things with remote workers, and how you can be more intentional with your communication and with performance management. We are going to actually give you all a tool that we’re going to link in the show notes in episode two. This is part one of…

Phil:
I get to come back?

Alyson:
He gets to come back!

Phil:
Oh, man.

Alyson:
This is part one. We’re doing a two part series so we can really help you as leaders manage your remote workers. We’re going to give you a tool. I’ll link it in today’s show notes, but we’re going to discuss it in the next episode. Phil, thank you so much for being on here, and you all, I hope to see you in part two.

Phil:
Thanks so much.

#remoteworkers #outofsightoutofmind #worklifebalance #leadingremoteemployees #youwanttodowhat? #workingfromhome



Phillip Van Hooser
Author: Phillip Van Hooser
Phillip Van Hooser, CSP, CPAE is committed to helping organizations transform their business outcomes by building engaged employee relationships. He is an award-winning keynote speaker and author on leadership, service and communication. His popular book, “Willie's Way: 6 Secrets for Wooing, Wowing and Winning Customers and Their Loyalty” recently hit #1 in Customer Relations on the Kindle store. Connect with Phil on LinkedIn and Facebook.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.