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    A Holistic Process for Managing the Performance of Remote Employees

    by Keith Fentress / April 26, 2018

    I often hear the phrase, “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.” I took the phrase to heart about five years ago, and began to focus heavily on measuring the performance of our employees, all of whom work remotely. I had graphs and scales for everything: How well employees supported company values. How much employees contributed to the company relative to other employees. Hours worked by employee by task. And so on. What I found was that my focus on measuring distracted me from the more important aspects of performance - accountability and transparency.

    Don’t get me wrong, I still feel that measurement is important. But it has to be balanced with the fact that we are human and, as such, many of the things we do cannot be assigned a value or plotted on a scale. For example, a big part of having a successful remote workforce is the ability to promote trust, which cannot be graphed. For that reason, I now see performance management as more of a process rather than a collection of metrics, especially for remote employees.

    Remote Employee Performance Across Industry

    I recently came across an interesting website, remote.co, that presents lessons learned from dozens of companies regarding how they manage remote workers. Takeaways include:

    • Remote employees are often more productive than employees located together in an office. As such, measuring employee output fits well into the culture of remote work. (Flexjobs, 10up Inc. Beutler Ink, Groove, LoveToKnow, Scapinghub, TeamSnap, Timely, TNTP, Toptal, Tropical Travelers, World Wide Web Hosting, Acceleration Partners, Answer Connect, Blossom, Bright!Tax, Envato)
    • It’s not all about measuring productivity. You have to consider whether an employee is thriving and working with passion. Organizational values are used to establish a culture of support and employee growth. (AirTreks, Pagely, Scapinghub, SoftwareMill, Speak, Trello).
    • Communication with remote employees is often enhanced through the use of technology, like messaging apps, project management tools, calendaring, and productivity dashboards. Such technologies are often augmented by frequent planning calls, daily huddles, and 1-on-1 meetings. (NodeSource, Mokriya, Project Ricochet, Vork Inc., WooThemes, Big Universe, Inc., Collage.com, Attentiv, Toggl, Batchbook, Project Ricochet, StickerMule, X-Team, Crossover)
    • Organizational goals are made clear to all remote employees through techniques like Objectives and Key Results, strategic plans, and balanced scorecards. (Mokriya, PeopleG2, Seeq, Sococo, Taska Technology Solutions, Teleport, TOK.tv, Trade Conductor. Ushahidi, Workform, Authentic Form & Function, Doist, ezhome)
    • It is important to focus on time management and task priorities to ensure that remote employees are working according to project management plans and customer expectations. (Sanborn, Simple [A], SitePen, TeamGantt, Tortuga, WorldWide101, Equivity, American Express, DataStax)
    • Clear metrics should be established for remote employee performance across a range of factors related to each employee’s job. (The Cheat Sheet, Universal Mind, Inc., AgileBits, AnswerFirst, Ciao Bambino! Inc., Codebusters, Inc.)

    Are Remote Employees Different?

    These takeaways are interesting in that most of them apply to employees who work in an office as well. I want to tell you that measuring the performance of remote employees is no different than measuring the performance of employees in an office. The big picture issues are the same: Are employees productive? Are they producing quality work? Do they contribute to the organization? Are they positive team players?

    But I also think there is a difference between employees working in an office and remote employees, which is summed up in the first takeaway point: there is a culture surrounding remote work that naturally lends itself to focusing on output. Working remotely requires employees who are self-starting, because no one is there to physically work with them or to directly oversee their efforts. That self-starting tendency is often a motivating force that drives remote employees to produce their work quickly and with quality. Combining that tendency with the blocks of uninterrupted time that usually coincide with remote work can yield a highly productive workforce.

    However, remote work also comes with a challenge. Remote employees work in isolation, which can make them feel disconnected from the organization and even undervalued. I believe this is another reason remote employees are often highly productive - they want to feel like they contribute and make a difference since they cannot be seen working in a physical sense. Because of this, I think a performance management system for remote employees, which I outline below, should both track performance and encourage engagement and connectivity. A highly productive workforce that is also engaged is awe-inspiring.

    Developing a Performance Measurement Process for Remote Employees

    The above takeaways can be combined into a process that will greatly enhance the productivity and engagement of remote employees.

    Organization Objectives

    Performance starts at the organization level, so I recommend adopting Objectives and Key Results (OKRs). To start, develop three to five objectives for your organization to complete over the next quarter. The objectives can come from your mission statement or be derived from organizational values. Examples could include, “helping employees thrive and grow” or “increasing company revenue.” Objectives are high-level statements that you want all your employees to mobilize around to achieve progress for the organization.

    Under each objective, there are key results that are measurable. Examples include:

    • increasing sales by 10%
    • 50% of all employees receive training
    • purchasing a dozen new laptops

    These are just examples, but the important thing is that each key result should be able to be completed within the quarter, and should be measurable.

    As an organization, if you complete all of your key results, you achieve all of your objectives for a given quarter. There are lots of theories on the use of OKRs and this description is admittedly bare-bones. More detail can be found here.

    Employee Objectives

    Now that you have established a set of OKRs for the organization as a whole, supporting OKRs should be established for departments and teams. This process flows all the way down to each individual employee. In coordination with their manager, employees create their own OKRs that support and feed up to the OKRs for their team, department, and organization.

    Employee OKRs are typically open to be viewed by their manager and other employees on their team, which promotes transparency and accountability. I feel it is important to have OKRs open so that everyone can see the role they play and how it combines with others to fulfill organizational objectives.

    So, as employees complete their OKRs, these roll up to the overall organization OKRs. As an example, if an organizational objective is to complete a strategic plan over the next quarter, the IT department could write a chapter of that plan that focuses on technology. The IT security team could draft the security section of that chapter. Individual employees could be responsible for drafting the section, editing, providing images, etc. In this way, the efforts of the employees roll all the way up to the organization.

    Employee Monitoring

    With established OKRs, the next step is monitoring performance. The use of technology comes in handy here, especially with remote employees. You can use spreadsheets, project management software, etc., but I am a big fan of 15Five. 15Five is an application that has a framework for establishing OKRs from the organization down to the individual, and a reporting feature that enables employees to report progress to their managers on a weekly basis.

    Regardless of the technology used, having remote employees reporting on a weekly basis is an excellent way to monitor both employee and organizational performance. I ask my folks to report their OKR status on Friday at the end of the day and I review it first thing Monday morning. During my Monday review, I often ask for clarification if I have questions and help refine employee OKRs to ensure they are advancing the goals of the company. I have found the weekly effort to be a helpful cadence to understand what happened the previous week and to plan out the week ahead.

    Promote Feedback

    Communication is key to engaging remote employees. I recommend two forms of communication to provide performance feedback to employees. First, hold regular 1-on-1 meetings with employees and, second, conduct quarterly performance reviews.

    A 1-on-1 is a routine meeting between a manager and his/her employees where the manager focuses on active listening and employee coaching. Typically, 1-on-1s should be performed weekly or biweekly and conducted in person. For remote teams, we have found that monthly 1-on-1s over videoconference work well.

    1-on-1s are typically 30 minutes and allow time for:

    • Employees to raise issues and ask questions of their manager
    • A manager to provide feedback to an employee
    • Employees to review upcoming work and ask any questions
    • The manager and the employee to focus on the employee’s growth and development in the organization

    More about 1-on-1s can be found here.

    Quarterly performance reviews are another way to provide feedback on progress. During 1-on-1s, managers are mostly listening to employees and helping them grow – though any immediate performance issues can and should be addressed. During quarterly reviews, it is the manager’s turn to provide more concrete feedback on an employee’s strengths and wins over the past quarter, areas for improvement, and the performance expectations for the employee during the upcoming quarter. Frequent reviews are an important way to help remote employees grow and to improve performance with regular employee feedback.

    If you have read this far, you may have the same reaction that I did when I first heard of 1-on-1s and quarterly reviews: Are you kidding me? No manager has that kind of time!

    I was squarely in that camp a year ago but now I have done a 180 – it is our job as managers to ensure that the goals of the organization are met and that employees are receiving feedback to improve performance. Setting aside the time to monitor performance and to enhance communications leads to a more engaged workforce and helps the organization achieve its goals more effectively. The question I ask myself now is why I did not think I needed to take the time in the past for 1-on-1s and quarterly reviews? They are transforming us and many other organizations into a performance culture, while keeping remote employees engaged and connected.

    How the Process Fits Together

    In summary, performance measurement for remote employees starts with clearly defined organizational goals. I personally like quarterly OKRs to establish an organization’s objectives. The next step is for each employee to have individual objectives that tie directly to the organization’s OKRs. These objectives are not a passive list. Employees should report progress to managers weekly. Weekly performance monitoring should be augmented by frequent 1-on-1 meetings between managers and their respective employees to coach and guide the progression of employees. In addition, quarterly performance reviews are designed to provide continual feedback throughout the year. In combination, this process keeps employees engaged and enables the organization to achieve its goals, while tracking the performance of all employees.

    Remote employees, in particular, benefit from this process because it adds structure and accountability. The structure is in the process that clearly defines objectives and keeps employees engaged with the organization. Without it, remote employees can feel more isolated and not understand how their work contributes to the organization. Through tracking employee performance on a weekly basis and holding regular 1-on-1s and quarterly reviews, employees are held accountable for their performance. Providing structure through a process can make up for the lack of the physical structure of the office setting. Through this structure, the natural tendency of remote workers to be productive is harnessed, which greatly benefits the whole organization.


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    Keith Fentress

    Keith Fentress

    Keith Fentress is the founder and president of Fentress Incorporated. He has an extensive history of consulting to real property organizations. His skills include organizational development, program evaluation, and business process improvement. He enjoys outdoor pursuits like backpacking, canoeing, snorkeling, and fly fishing. He also enjoys martial arts and playing the saxophone.