When Working From Home Isn’t Working


Get Shift Done: Management

Work from home, remote work, telecommuting — whatever you call it, it’s what lots of workers want. But what happens when it’s broken? What do you do when one of your team is working from home, but it isn’t working out?

Start By Looking in the Mirror

The first step in these situations is to take a hard look in the proverbial mirror. Are you doing everything you can to lead this person? Do they have everything they need to be effective?

  • Start by looking at your communication style. Are you just trading emails with this person, but never meeting with them? Is all your communication through your project management tool? If you’re not talking to them, and I mean frequently, they may feel neglected or adrift. Talk to them, with your voice, at least once a week. Minimally chat with them on the phone, ideally talk “face-to-face” in a video conference.
  • Look, too, at how your team interacts with your remote worker. Make sure that team meetings are not remote hostile. That’s a quick way to alienate someone from the conversation.
  • Lastly, make sure everyone’s roles and responsibilities are crystal clear. Ask yourself if the issues could be related to a misinterpretation of what is expected of your remote worker. It’s difficult to meet expectations if you don’t know what they are.

Hold the Mirror Up for Them

Once you’ve really thought through how you’re managing a struggling remote employee, and corrected what you can, it’s time to have the hard conversation with them.

Before you do, make sure you have a firm grip on your company’s remote work policies. Not only will that let you know what your options are, it will allow you to answer any questions that might come up during the conversation.

Effective dynamics with a remote employee require a baseline level of trust. Generally speaking, if they have broken your trust, it’s hard to believe they are doing the work they need to do when you can’t see them doing it.

They may have broken this trust in a big way, like missing an important deadline or not showing up to meetings. Or it might be an accumulation of small breaks in trust, like not working when they are supposed to be, not being available, or quality of work slipping.

Whatever the reason, identify what has lead to the lack of faith in the employee’s ability to work from home and discuss that with them. Note, I didn’t say confront them with it. I said discuss.

Bring your list of concerns. Give examples. Be very specific. Like, be VERY specific. Give dates, give concrete examples. That means you have to be prepared in advance — and that’s often the biggest issue with managing remote workers.

When you do list your concerns, make sure that your employees can see what their behavior looks like to others. Not like a slap on the wrist (yet). Instead, make sure they understand how their behavior appears outside of their home office. Because, let’s be real, it’s hard to know how your actions are perceived through emails and instant messages.

Once you’re done, make it clear what they need to do to rebuild the trust. Again, be specific. “Do a better job at communicating” isn’t specific. “Be sure you tell me right away about roadblocks and hold ups on your project” is specific.

Now for the hardest part. Ask if there are things that they are missing from your side of the partnership. Are you available when they need you? Do you ask pointed questions, or just ask how it’s going? It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking someone working from home is slacking off, but it might be they are struggling in some other way that you haven’t thought of.

Then What?

From there it’s important to keep up honest and clear communication. If you have continuing concerns about their work, voice them. Don’t blindside them later with a big list of complaints. Be sure they know where they stand.

If you’ve walked them through your concerns, set goals and expectations, and you’re still not seeing changes, it’s time to look at your options.

Most of the companies I’ve come across that offer part-time work from home also have clear policies on when that can be revoked. If working from home still isn’t working, it’s time to pull that privilege.

In that case, the first question you’re likely to be asked is “How can I earn it back?” Be ready to answer that — make sure you’ve checked with your HR resource on your plan of attack. Your answer might be “You can’t.” Or it might be a re-evaluation at their next review. Whatever it is, be clear and be ready.

Is this person full time remote and out of the area? Again, talk to HR, first. If you can’t trust someone to work remotely that literally can’t come into the office, then the relationship has passed its expiration date. Time for both of you to move on.

There is one last thing to be ready for — your employee might decide to leave if their work from home privileges are revoked. But, remember, if they were being an effective employee, or if they were willing to put in the effort, you would never have gotten this far. While replacing a member of the team is always a pain, in a situation like this, it’s probably in everyone’s best interest.


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