Managing work-from-home employees requires some extra effort, but it's definitely worth it.

Staff Writer

Contrary to all the faddish biz-blab about “collaboration” and “open plan offices,” the best scientific studies show that employees are happier and “massively” more productive when they work remotely most of the time.

Work-from-home, however, is not an automatic panacea. If entrepreneurs and managers want their companies and teams to succeed, they must learn to motivate and engage employees at a distance.

Over the past two decades, I’ve had long-term (e.g. years-long) work-from-home relationships with a dozen clients. Based upon my experience and observing that of others, there are five sure-fire ways to motivate and engage those who work-from-home.

1. Understand the challenge

Unlike employees who commute regularly, work-from-home employees are less likely to be influenced by the behavior (good or bad) of their peers. While they’re unlikely to be inspired by positive role models, they’re equally unlikely to pick up bad habits.

The lack of peer pressure means that managers must take more responsibility for keeping work-at-home employees “plugged in” to organization goals and expectations. This is especially true in organizations that have a strong culture that “normalizes” successful behavior.

2. If possible, have the employee come in at least once a week.

According to a recent Gallup study, only 30% employees who commute every day are “engaged” at work, meaning that they feel a sense of belonging and responsibility to the organization. Similarly, only 30% of employees who work-from-home all the time are engaged at work.

By contrast, 41% of employees who commute to work 1 or 2 days a week (and work-from-home the rest of the time) are engaged at work. Apparently, a weekly appearance at the office helps work-from-home employees stay connected, while still maintaining their independence.

3. Schedule regular check-ins.

If the work-from-home employee lives too far away to commute, schedule frequent check-ins to discuss the work, provide coaching, and give the employee a sense of changing priorities and the way that the organization functions or is changing.

The important thing here is that, because work-from-home employees “don’t know what they don’ t know,” managers can’t depend upon them to know how many check-ins are required, or when it’s a good idea to have one.

4. Provide clear guidance.

Because there are no visual cues to assess emotions, work-from-home employees can easily start worrying that their manager is angry or annoyed because he or she took something amiss that they did or said (like in an email). This emotional “noise” can very distracting.

The easiest way to avoid this is to create an atmosphere of candor and quick response. If work-from-home employees know that feedback will be forthcoming if something’s wrong, they’re less likely to obsess about problems that don’t exist.

5. Pay them promptly.

Many companies put their freelancers (who are generally work-from-home) on the bottom of the who-needs-to-be-paid-this-month list. Not being paid on time tells work-from-home employees that they’re not really part of the team and their contribution not really valued.

If a company is experiencing financial problems, the burden should be shared among everyone, not foisted onto those who are working from home. If a company is fine financially, there’s no excuse for not paying on time. Period.

5.5. Add Appropriate Technology

I consider this as a “half” method because, in my experience, 95% of the communication between managers and work-from-home employees can be handled using email and telephone.

That being said, I’ve had some good experiences using Slack… although I’ve also noticed that communications in Slack have a tendency to gravitate back into email. I’ve also used some videoconference tools… but found a talking head doesn’t add much content.