Managing Remote Employees: Tools to Help

Managing remote employees is tough. Here’s a tool that will help you stay connected with the remote employees you’re managing and stay on top of how they are performing.

Tools to Help When Managing Remote Employees

I was recently interviewed by Alyson with STAKE: The Leadership Podcast on the issue of managing remote employees. I’ve included a video of the episode here and the excerpted transcript follows. Subscribe here to get our blog delivered to your inbox AND get our bonus welcome gift!

Alyson Van Hooser:

Hey everyone, this is part two of our series on leadership and managing remote employees. If you listened to part one then you know I’ve got Phil Van Hooser with me, he is my business partner and father-in-law. We are a leadership development company together named Van Hooser Associates. We work with leaders across the country — from front-line supervisors to CEOs — to help develop them as leaders. We’re talking about the challenge of managing remote employees. Today, one of my favorite things to do is to give you all practical, actionable tools to help you in your own leadership journey.

Phil has created a tool that you’re going to be able to use today to help you manage performance with remote employees, but also with your in-office employees. Phil, do you want to do a little bit of a recap on what we talked about on our last episode?

Maintaining Connection & Performance

Phillip Van Hooser:

Sure. In our last episode, we were talking about the initial stages of dealing with your request to work mobily or remotely…. and some of the challenges that I had to work through to be able to get to that. One of the things that I stressed, was how important it was for me that we would be able to maintain the synergy, the conversation, and the personal growth. How can we maintain that? And I’m always performance focused. How can we make sure that we meet our commitments both to our clients and also to one another?

When we’re working remotely, I don’t want to have to worry if you are actually working on the project. So how can I go make sure that the projects and the deadlines that we’ve established are going to be met, and it doesn’t stress me out? And I don’t have to micromanage you by calling you every 15 minutes to say, “Tell me again where we are on the project.”

We talked about different tools that we might have available or develop that would enable you to do that. And one of the things that we’ve talked about was what I call the Critical Incident File.

I’m going to tie the Critical Incident File with another tool that I use that is basically a time management and project management tool. Let me start by describing that.

Time & Project Expectations

First of all, in most environments, especially where people are working together in the same workspace, it’s not at all unusual for a manager to call a subordinate into the office and say, “Alyson, I’ve got a project I want you to take on.” That’s not unusual. Happens every day. It also needs to happen remotely because we still have to meet obligations.

More often than not, if you go back to the traditional way that unfolds, the “Baby Boomer manager” would tell you what they need to do, what you need to do and how you need to do it to some degree, and when it needs to be completed. The what, the how, the when — that’s pretty traditional.

I realized that when you’re forcing people to work their calendar or their schedule around yours, it’s going to bring a certain amount of stress and maybe even a certain amount of pushback. For example, if I say, “Alyson, I’ve got this project I want you to start working on. Want it done by a week from Thursday,” I don’t ask what other projects you’re working on. I don’t ask what other things you have in process at that moment. And so it’s very possible that you get frustrated, maybe even angry, maybe even resentful, simply because I don’t build that into the process.

Several years ago I adapted that process this way. “Alyson, I’ve got this project I need you work on. Let me explain to you why it’s so important.” In other words, talking about the “why” of the project. Here’s the importance to the organization and this is why I’m assigning it to you.

But then I ask a very simple question. “Alyson, you understand the importance of this project now, based on what I’ve explained. When do you think you could realistically complete this project?” That is a very subtle question, but it’s a very important question, I think. Instead of me making that assignment out of hand, I’ve asked you to participate by telling me when do you think you can get it done.

Now the assumption is you’re going to process all the other projects and deadlines that are upcoming for you. Even if I have assigned them previously, I may have forgotten about them. Right? So, now starts a period of negotiation.

“Well Phil, I’ve got two other projects that are upcoming that I need to finish in the next three weeks. I understand how important this new project is to you. I believe we could have it done by January the 15th.”

Now stop right here for a second. That’s an arbitrary number. You picked it. I had not really thought about January 15th, but in my head I had a pretty good idea of when I needed to have this project done.

So let’s assume January 15th is fine. So what am I going to say? “January 15th works really, really well for our schedule. Let’s write it down, commit to January 15th.”

Now if January 15th  doesn’t work for me, I’m going to simply say,

“Alyson, January 15th is a little far out from me. I really was hoping somewhere around the 1st of the year.” You may then counter with, 

“Well Phil, these other two projects are coming up about that same time. You tell me which one is the greater priority.” In other words, a negotiation starts. And it’s very fair for the person that is being delegated to to have that opportunity to discuss these other things as well.

The reality of it is, if this kind of discussion is open-ended — we’ll find a day that works. We’re going to agree upon something. And once we agree upon it, we’re going to commit to it. But I stress, this part of it has been negotiated.

Now I’m going to do something that is not negotiated, never is. Human nature says that if you know a project is due January 15th, chances are pretty good you’ll put off the date because you’ve got these other things that are foremost in your mind.

Our teacher tells us in college week one that 16 weeks later a term paper is going to be due. That’s why they call it a term paper, for this term of this class. And when do we start on it? A week, two weeks before? Obviously we don’t do as great job on it because we rush through it, but that’s human nature.

Unless of course we have a project report. So here’s the part that is not negotiated. We’ve now negotiated a January 15th completion date, but I’m going to simply say, “January 15th is great, but I would like to see what progress you’ve made on this.”

This is not a negotiated day. “On December the 15th, I’d like for you to give me a full reporting of what you’ve done on this project up to that point.” The project report date is not negotiated. This means that you’ve got to start, right?

4 Steps to Manage Remote Employee Project Expectations

Alyson Van Hooser:

So, let me just summarize that for you. Four steps when it comes to assigning a project or sitting out performance expectations.

  1. Step one is “why.” Why is this project important? Why does it need to be accomplished?
  2. Step  two is you ask the question of your employee and that’s really important. You’re asking them when can you realistically complete this project.
  3. Step three is the negotiation period. They’re going to tell you a date when they can and if you need it to be sooner, then you’ll go through that process and come to an agreement.
  4. And finally, maybe most importantly, you’re going to schedule a follow-up conversation to talk about where they are in the process of completing the project.

Four steps, really easy. That’s something everybody can do, it’s going to elevate your leadership. It’s just making the commitment to following through with the four steps.

Phillip Van Hooser:

The four steps are perfectly outlined by you just now, but I have found one thing to be true… When the person shows up for the project report date, about 75 to 85% of the time the person says, “Well, I think I’m almost finished.” Remember, the due date is still a month out.

Here’s the concept: it’s not hard finishing a project once we get started on the project. The hard part is to start it. So the simple act of giving somebody a project report immediately increases the productivity, the time management, 75 to 85% of the time. 

A bout 10% of the time the response will be,  “Well Phil, I’ve started it, but I’m at a dead end here. I don’t know what to do next.” Okay, we still have a month to be able to talk about, and reevaluate and refocus on what’s the next steps before we finish this project on time. Okay? So we’re good with that.

But here’s the last one. You can expect five to 10% of the time this happens: “What have you done on the project?” And the response is, “Nothing. I didn’t get to it.”

This is not good because now my confidence is shaken.We’ve waited two or three or four weeks to get to this project report. Now we’ve only got three or four weeks to go until it’s due and you’re telling me you have done nothing on it.

What I’m going to say is, “Alyson, I’m disappointed. I thought we agreed that today would be a progress report, but since you have not given me a progress report, now my faith is shaken on the completion date. So Alyson, here’s what we’re going to do. A week from today, I want a full reporting of what you’ve done. Specifically, I want you to include having called all the vendors and having the outline,” you know whatever. I’m going to give you assignments now that will assure that we’ll move directly toward completing this project successfully on time, but I’m going to make you now report to me as opposed to asking you to report to me.I have found this to work exceptionally well in terms of project management.

Managing Remote Employees with Two Questions

Phillip Van Hooser:

But then that brings us to the other tool that we’ve talked about, that we were going to talk about, relative to managing remote employees and that’s what I call the Critical Incident File.

Phil: A critical incident file is really, really simple and I’ll talk you through it. You can do it with one sheet of paper. You need to do it for every employee otherwise it could be seen as being biased or prejudicial. It takes about six or seven minutes per employee per week, so you can schedule your time accordingly.

You’re just going to simply ask yourself these two questions about every employe once a week.

  1. What did the employee do that was above expectations?
  2. What did the employee do that was below expectations?

Now, you’ve got to be very, very candid. You’re not judging this over the last month or last six months… it’s over a one week period. Then make a note of each item.

Once I have these on paper, I’m going to ask myself a question. Have I talked to the employee about each of these things? Here’s where we ensure the ongoing communication with remote employees. I’m going to plan a conversation to talk about the last week’s performance. I’m going to literally touch base on these things that were my observations.

I call this the “critical incident file.” Critical, because they exceeded expectations; critical because they did not exceed expectation. If it’s just what I expected, I’m not going to spend as much time worrying about that. It’s the things that are highs and lows that I want to call attention to.

Alyson Van Hooser:

If there are weeks where there’s nothing really great or nothing below expectations, then is there nothing in the critical incident file for that week?

Phillip Van Hooser

I’ll make a note that nothing out of the ordinary was witnessed. For that employee that is the solid performer, but not necessarily the superstar, I’m going to periodically tell them I appreciate their consistency. 

So yes, there’s going to be time where people perform just on the average. It’s not that it’s to be forced, but we need to capture those things that are witnessed or observable, things that we’re thinking about. And I think it’s especially important when that person’s working remotely. Your imagination can fill in a lot of blanks. If I wonder about what’s going on, my imagination can create a narrative, a story that’s not legit. I want to make sure that we have these ongoing conversations so that I don’t have to worry about it. You know what I’m thinking about, I know what you’re thinking about. You know that I’m recognizing good behavior, you know that I’m not ignoring bad behavior. And so all of these things are literally communicated about in real time.

Alyson Van Hooser:

So this has just given me so many good, different thoughts that I want the listeners, as leaders, to think about. There’s a statistic — I can’t cite the source right now because I don’t want to do it incorrectly — but it said that 66% of Gen Z, employees who are 24 years and younger, if they don’t receive feedback every few weeks, then they’re going to start looking either within your company or outside of your company for a job, for a leader who is going to give the consistent feedback. A leader doing that critical incident file every week is not micromanaging. If you have a conversation with your people every week, they are going to eat that up. That’s going to create a more engaged employee!

Phillip Van Hooser:

And I would go so far as to say this… even though we may respond differently, I would argue Baby Boomers are hungry for it as well.

Alyson Van Hooser

Good point.

Phillip Van Hooser

Understand the need is the same, it’s the behavior or the response to that unsatisfied need for feedback that may be different. So I don’t think it’s going to hurt anybody to get more feedback.

And When It’s Performance Evaluation Time

Alyson Van Hooser:

Perfect point. Two other thoughts. So when it comes to the six month evaluation or the annual evaluation, you have all of this documentation that’s going to help you when it comes. You’re not trying to remember what happened — you’ve got it documented.

Phillip Van Hooser:

If you don’t have this kind of captured information, you end up having an annual evaluation that covers the last six weeks or last month because we can’t think back that far. The employee that’s trying to get by with something simply cleans up their act for the last wo or three or four weeks of the year, knowing you can’t remember everything. But when you have this report, you can reference things you’ve talked about consistently.

Managing the Remote Employee’s Leader — Yourself!

Alyson Van Hooser:

Absolutely. Great point. I just want to make one final point on that. As you were talking about doing this for your employees, I couldn’t help but think doing one for yourself as a leader. So in thinking about how you’re leading your employees, did I go above their expectation this week or did I not even meet their expectation this week? What did I do right? What did I do wrong? And that’s an accountability measure for yourself to rise to the occasion and become the great leader that you want to be and keep tabs on yourself. How are you performing? Good or bad? So I like this tool for employees, but I also like it as a personal tool.

Phillip Van Hooser:

I think that’s a great application of this concept!

Alyson Van Hooser:

So let’s just wrap things up today. We call this podcast STAKE: The Leadership Podcast, because we want to give you all tools where you can put your stake in the ground and be better going forward.

We talked about two big things for managing remote employees today. 1) We talked about the process of lining out expectations for remote employees. The four steps, the why, the when, the negotiation and the follow-up. 2) And then we talked about the critical incident file that you can use on a weekly basis, both for your employees and then even for yourself in your own leadership journey.

So my question to you today is, what are you going to do with what you’ve learned? Are you going to access the critical incident file that I have put in the show notes? And are you going to implement that for your employees…for yourself? It is our hope that you absolutely do!

Thank you, Phil, for being on here. It’s been such a pleasure being able to share just your wisdom with the people on here. I know that so many people are going to gain value from this. Everyone else who’s listening, I look forward to seeing you all next time.

#managingremoteemployees #criticalincidentfile #employeeperformancemanagement #outofsightoutofmind #managingyourself



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.

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