Negotiating Effective Remote Work Flexibility

By Chuck Doran and Megan Winkeler

If you are living and working in the Northeast or Mid-Atlantic today, you know why employers in these regions are the most likely to offer remote work options for their employees. With nor’easter snow arriving into spring this year, many of us praise the advances in technology and workplace culture that make it possible to work from home on occasion. It’s not just regions with inhospitable winter weather that are moving towards more work-from-home flexibility, though. In 2017, almost 3% of the US workforce worked remotely at least half of the time – a 115% increase from 2005.

Given the benefits for both employers and employees, this isn’t a surprising trend. Research has found that telecommuting employees can save up to $4,000 a year on commuting and office-related costs (think gas and dry cleaning), and skipping the commute returns the equivalent of 11 days a year to employees. For companies, this helps improve morale and retention, and it projects the image of a global and forward-looking company to help when recruiting new talent. One study also estimates that companies can save up to $11,000 annually per remote employee.

Follow MWI’s Blog

Unfortunately, some failed telecommuting experiments at companies like Best Buy give remote work a bad rap. Early studies into remote teams’ overall success, such as Vijay Govindarajan and Anil Gupta’s seminal 2001 study, also found that remote teams were not as successful at keeping up productivity, meeting goals, or collaborating and communicating well with other team members. With improved technology and more refined management practices regarding remote setups, however, employees’ ability to be just as – or even more – productive when working remotely has improved as well. For instance, this 2009 study found that well-managed remote teams with strong communication and collaboration processes can actually outperform those that share office space.

As a manager or team leader, there can be a lot to gain by allowing employees a certain level of remote work flexibility, and negotiating that flexibility is a chance to create more value for everyone. Whether you are negotiating to allow one employee an occasional work-from-home day or negotiating with an entire team switching to telecommuting, setting the table for success up front is essential. A successful remote work setup establishes a culture of trust, focuses on best practices for remote communication, and creates measurable standards of accountability. As you prepare for your negotiation about remote work opportunities with your employees, consider the following advice.

Establish a culture of trust

We only tend to consider of the impact of distance when we think about remote work, but there are actually three types of distance to consider in the workplace. The first type is physical – are we working in the same place at the same time? The second is operational – how large is my team, how closely related are their skills, and what is our ability to connect them all effectively? The third type is affinity – how much do we trust one another, and do we share the same values? As you create greater physical distance with remote work opportunities, you have an opportunity to decrease your affinity distance in the process.

  • Establish consistent norms.    In a previous blog post, we highlighted the importance of establishing positive group norms within a team to improve productivity. When collaborating with a remote employee, you can build trust by negotiating consistent norms for each person to follow. For instance, you can agree on how quickly employees should respond to emails or messages from you, other team members, and clients. Is it okay for an employee to work different hours than in-office team members, or is it important that they are available during the typical 9-5 window? Should they avoid louder environments like coffee shops? Is it okay for them to be offline from apps like Slack for a period of time, or is it important to be online throughout the day? You should also set expectations for when and how you will communicate and interact with employees while they work remotely. We create trust by consistently and reliably following through on what we say we will do, so clearly naming what you each will do gives you that opportunity. It also helps avoid confusion, miscommunication, and misunderstanding.
  • Avoid micro-managing details.    Once you establish norms for behavior when working remotely, it’s time to allow your remote employees to follow through on the expectations you established. You may be tempted to check whether they are online or logged into certain platforms, ask for play-by-play updates, or call when an email goes unanswered. However, these actions erode trust, and studies show that there is strong link between employees’ trust in their manager and their engagement and satisfaction with their jobs. Avoid the instinct to micro-manage, and give remote employees an opportunity to succeed.
  • Model and encourage effective feedback.    It’s important to create a strong culture of feedback in any organization, but it’s especially important when managing remote employees. You can do this by setting aside time specifically dedicated to reviewing the remote work setup and providing feedback. It’s important that the feedback is focused on empowering growth and improving the remote work processes, so start by stating this explicitly (“I’d like to schedule a feedback session with the goal of empowering your growth in the company and identifying what works and what could improve with your current remote work arrangements”). During these feedback sessions, Harvard Business Review suggests a model of “caring criticism” to encourage open dialogue. Recognize that your system might not perfect, and you both may make a few errors when first starting out the remote work arrangement; this changes the tone of the feedback session from threatening to empowering and builds trust. You should also encourage team members to provide you with feedback as well; after all, successful remote work setups are contingent on both employees’ and managers’ actions and performance. After discussing a piece of feedback with an employee, say something like, “I’m interested in hearing your thoughts about that” or “What do you think?”

Focus on good remote communication

We all know that good communication relies just as much on body language as what we actually say. Body language can even be “seen” when we speak on the phone through the tone of our voice. As we’ve covered in a blog post about communicating effectively with technology, conversations carried out through technology are ripe for miscommunication, misunderstandings, and confusion. Remote communication doesn’t have to be less productive, though, and ensuring that you are using best practices can improve your communication overall.

  • Choose the right technology – and stick with it.   Have you ever received an email with a request, only to have it followed up with a phone call and in-person conversation? Communicating over multiple platforms is as confusing as it is simple to do, so choosing one communication technology and sticking with it helps avoid miscommunication and mixed expectations with remote employees. Video calls are great for providing some body language and quick responses when brainstorming, giving feedback, or troubleshooting a problem; however, they might not be as effective for a quick request, check-in, or reminder. Be purposeful and explicit in your choice, and stick with it. Not only do messages over multiple platforms become confusing, but they can also erode trust you worked hard to build.
  • Avoid too much brevity.    If you’ve ever texted someone and received a response of “k”, you know that more brevity isn’t always more productive. Set the expectation that remote workers should provide a bit more detail in their emails or notes on shared documents, and model this behavior in your own communication. For instance, if you are emailing back and forth with a remote employee regarding edits to a proposal, it might be tempting to send a simple edit such as “too cutesy – change wording” in the name of efficiency. However, this can leave someone wondering why you feel this way, and the resulting conversation around what you meant takes more time. It takes a few extra minutes up front to write out, “The message here is strong, and I think it would come across even stronger if the tone were more professional,” but it saves you from long-term confusion.
  • Create opportunities for connection.    Employees looking to spend a significant amount of time working remote may lose opportunities to connect around the proverbial water cooler, which can cause them to feel isolated and less engaged with you and other team members. To avoid this, set aside a few minutes at the beginning of video check-in calls to share stories unrelated to work. Kick things off by sharing some photos of your family’s recent vacation or asking about something fun they’ve done recently. If you are managing a larger group of remote employees, you can try some of these structured icebreakers to provide opportunities for your team to connect.

Create measurable accountability standards

With a relationship based on trust and systems for effective communication established, you are ready to negotiate how you will measure what a productive remote work arrangement looks like. Measuring productivity is much easier for employees whose work has a clear output, such as number of calls made or code written. For those employees whose work is defined by pursuing larger, less defined goals (i.e. securing new funders or increasing customer engagement), negotiating a remote work arrangements presents an opportunity to empower employees to create their own system of accountability.

  • Assess baseline in-office performance.    Whether an employee works in the office or out of the office, as a manager you care that work is getting done and getting done well. Before your negotiation, review the employee’s performance to establish a baseline to serve as an objective standard for assessing the success of the remote work flexibility. As you manage their progress as a remote employee, ask yourself if they are still meeting their goals and producing necessary outcomes. When you review the remote work arrangement, ask yourself: are they continuing to grow their skills and improve performance?
  • Empower employees to set goals.    It may be tempting to create a detailed list of tasks and deadlines to ensure that remote employees are productive. However, you have an opportunity to provide employees with a chance to develop self-management and self-reporting skills. Ask them to prepare for the negotiation as if they were in your shoes. From a management perspective, how can they be accountable and remain productive? Not only is this an effective exercise to grow employees’ skills, but it also empowers them to take ownership of their work product and accountability.
  • Step back.    Even when your employees work across the table from you, you can never monitor every moment of their day – and a good manager knows that doing so is unnecessary and unproductive. When an employee works remotely, it can be difficult to trust that they aren’t taking advantage with two hour lunches or taking care of other tasks at home. However, it’s essential to let go and trust that you have negotiated an effective arrangement based on mutual trust, effective communication, and accountability. If goals are met, does it really matter if Karen takes a break to play video games or James watches an episode of his favorite series on Netflix after a mentally taxing project? You may find that employees return to their work with renewed energy and confidence knowing that they have the autonomy to manage their own work throughout the day. Focus on accountability rather than control.

Set a date to renegotiate

Some employees will thrive in a remote work environment; others may not. By setting a clear date to review the efficacy of the arrangement, you set the expectation that remote work flexibility is a privilege based on performance. Be prepared to compare in-office performance to remote performance, and tie your assessment to clear observations (you can review our blog on the Ladder of Inference to learn how to effectively explain your conclusions). If the employee’s performance isn’t as successful as you hoped, ask yourself: have they incorporated feedback and improved throughout the time they have worked remotely? Have they grown and acquired new skills, and can I expect that they will continue to do so?

Let us know how your remote work negotiations play out as a manager or employee and share any additional tips in the comments below. Happy negotiating!