05/09/2014

By Georgia Ellis


From the earliest days of travelling sales people and the opening of new territories, businesses have faced the challenge of managing and motivating remote workers. Even now, with the power of modern technology and robust corporate infrastructure, large companies can struggle to get it right. So it’s hardly surprising SMBs might think twice about expanding overseas, particularly if it involves relocating key workers.

Yet good management and careful planning can turn the challenge into an opportunity for growth both for the company and the individual employees. There are three main personnel issues you should consider as a manager of remote workers: their performance; their health and safety; their professional development. Getting the balance right is critical if you are to avoid colleagues feeling over pressured, underappreciated, directionless — or a combination of all three.

But first you have to select the right candidate for the job. As American pioneers would tell you, remote workers need resilience, independence of spirit, and the freedom and ability to act without constant reference to head office. Where possible, your candidate should help you select the market for your overseas expansion and preferably join you on an extensive fact finding mission, so you both understand the conditions under which they’ll be working.

Once you have employed someone, “you have to trust that they are doing their jobs; if you micromanage and tell people what to do, there is no point in hiring them,” says Manchester United’s former manager Sir Alex Ferguson. You will find it easier to trust them if you choose people with the right personality as well as the professional skills for the job. Among other things, they need to be good communicators — willing to tell you when things are going wrong, not just when they go right.

Agreeing Key Performance Indicators is just the start

A clear sense of purpose is important in any company but even more so when you don’t share the same office with your colleagues. Planning an employee’s overseas assignment involves not just setting SMART key performance indicators (KPIs), although these are essential, but also agreeing how they want to be managed and supported. This is as much about expectations as it is about control and will depend to a great extent on the level of mutual respect and trust between you.

No one wants their manager breathing down their neck but even independent minded people benefit from regular contact and feedback. One simple method is to agree and stick to a schedule of regular catch up calls, which take place regardless of whether there is anything major to report or not. These must be free of interruptions, particularly from people working in your office, to avoid making your remote worker feel less valued or disconnected from life in the company ‘back home’.

If possible, use video calls, such as FaceTime or Skype, to make your virtual meetings more interactive. This might not be as good as meeting physically but at least you can see the face of the person you are speaking with, which makes it easier to read subtle emotional cues. As with all good conversations you should try to ask open questions that encourage your colleague to open up — and then you need to listen carefully, giving them time to speak (don’t be afraid of phone silence).

Actively promoting good health, safety and wellbeing

A major (if often unvoiced) concern of employees on foreign assignments is what to do in a personal health emergency. “Good managers will help allay concerns about personal wellbeing by ensuring colleagues are fully briefed on the health and security profile of the city or country they are relocating to,” says Louis Kaszczak, Head of Global Direct Business at Aetna International. “This includes a list of emergency numbers, consulate facilities, top pharmacies, necessary pre-trip vaccinations and even the different names given to familiar prescription drugs in overseas markets.”

Employees on assignments also face psychological challenges that residents don’t, simply because they tend not to know anyone locally (social media only compensates so much). This can create a sense of isolation and even alienation, which can lead to an unhealthy work/life balance, including overworking to compensate for the absence of a social life. Good managers will help employees build networks, by introducing them to local American Chambers of Commerce and other expat communities, and will take a personal interest in their wellbeing.

While overseas employees like their freedom, they don’t like feeling abandoned, so it’s important they know you are there for them if they need help. Give them your personal number to call at any time for advice, be prepared to fly out to them if necessary — and make sure they are not afraid to ask for help. If you can’t be their personal point of contact, ensure they have someone in the office back home with the authority to support them in whatever way necessary.

Supporting an overseas employee’s professional development at home

In his book ‘Flat Army’, Dan Pontefract says the rise of “virtually segregated” teams makes it imperative for leaders to “rethink their style” if they are to handle the challenge of remote-based workers. This includes finding new ways to motivate employees and support their continued professional development. One way is simply not to ‘overlook’ them when it comes to employee appraisals, training days and team talks — include them instead, so they know they are still valued.

There are numerous technological solutions to collaborative working at a distance and some are particularly good for maintaining engagement. Tools such as Google hangouts and Skype groups can be used for formal team talks and appraisals; while intranet based training and evaluation tools mean distance should be no barrier to personal development. At the same time, instant messaging services can be used for casual ‘coffee-break’ or ‘pizza time’ conversations.

Many of the best global business leaders are already using distributed management styles and self organizing teams to tackle these issues. The one key message is to be flexible because everything is always changing — and be imaginative. As well as regular reports in your in-house newsletter to remind other employees of their overseas colleagues’ work, consider having a fun photo board on your intranet or company Pinterest board where people can share their travel snaps (you can use ‘secret boards’ if you only want specific people to see them).


Georgia Ellis is a writer, who works currently in digital publishing. She mainly writes about business and technology and has written for www.entrepreneur.com.