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How Do I Motivate Remote Employees?


navy LT_uniform_khaki

by Kelly Vandever


We’ll call him LT Dan…not to be confused with the LT Dan in the movie Forrest Gump… but this man was a Lieutenant in the US Navy and his first name was Dan.

LT Dan would call me up and tell me what his group was doing.

Let me give you some context.

At the time, I was in charge of officer recruiting in the Southern United States for the US Navy. Indirectly reporting to me were 8 officers who were responsible for the officer recruiting in their state.

Dan was one of the program officers.

Now at first when Dan started calling me, I remember thinking, “Why is this LT calling me and telling me what he’s doing? Does he feel like he needs to brag to me about what he’s doing? None of the other program officers are calling me talking about what they’re doing. What’s LT Dan’s deal?”

But after a few of these phone calls, I got it. Dan’s organization was doing very well meeting their program numbers. I was accountable for making sure that the different states met their goals. His sharing with me, which I originally took to be bragging, was actually just keeping me informed. And as I loosened up and started listening to what Dan was saying, I realized that the good ideas of Dan and his team could benefit the other officers in charge of the other states. And there were probably great things in other states that could be shared to help everyone else better make their goals.

What grew from there was a sharing culture. I brought together the 8 program officers each quarter to share ideas. I started having calls with all the officers between meetings. And when a program officer shared great ideas between the quarterly meetings, I would use my super fancy fax machine to send the description of the activities to all 8 offices. (Yeah, this was pre-email days in the Navy and I was extremely proud of my high tech fax, thank you very much!).

In the management training classes I lead, I often get asked about managing people remotely. The experience above was my first time managing people remotely, but it wouldn’t be my last. When asked how to manage and motivate remote employees, there’s a few things that I’ve found work well.

Set Clear Goals and Expectations

Nothing changes just because the person or group is remote. As their manager, you still need to be clear on your expectations of what the job is, how it’s to be conducted and how to verify that the work gets done.


Know Your People 

To effectively manage anyone, you need to get to know them and develop a relationship of mutual trust and respect.

Learn their personal career goals. Understand their strengths and what they want to improve on. Ask what motivates them intrinsically about their work. Ask what extrinsic rewards they’d find motivating. Being out of sight is no excuse for not getting to know them as a person. Invest the time to understand what makes them eager to wake up and go to work.


Meet Regularly

Meet regularly with the employee. The nature of the work will probably dictate how frequently those meetings need to take place.

When I was managing professional services employees in the software industry, we had meetings every 6 weeks. When I was managing officer recruiting organizations, I had the one-on-one meetings more frequently. How do you pick the interval? It should be often enough that things don’t fall between the cracks, but not so often that you don’t have anything new to talk about. Experiment with frequency and choose what fits.


Have an Agenda for the Meetings

When meeting with your employees, have an agenda. A sample agenda might include:

  • Updates on progress toward business goals
  • Status of issues raised at previous meetings
  • Discussion on any new issues the employee is encountering – either as a “heads up” or an “I need help with this”
  • Personal development goals – how is the employee progressing toward acquiring the skills, knowledge or training they’ve identified as important to their career growth?
  • Other issues – vacation schedules, personal issues at home they want to make you aware of, etc.


Weekly Emails +++Plus+++

Managing several new employees spread across the country, I was having trouble making sure I was telling everyone everything. So I started a weekly email that I sent each Friday that gave the various business and organizational related topics that would keep them up-to-date.

Somewhere along the line, I started adding the +++Plus+++. I would tell stories and share philosophies on work and on life. Stories and lessons about the topics included things like:

  • Trust
  • End of year reflections
  • New year resolutions
  • Being a rock star in your own life
  • Helping fellow team members
  • Emotions – fears and hopes – after an acquisition
  • Working with rather than against human nature
  • Links to other people’s articles and videos with great messages
  • Reflections on personal things – like the death of a dear friend, my granddaughter’s first birthday, the wedding of two work colleagues

Not all the weekly +++Plus+++ emails were deep philosophy. Sometimes I’d share something funny I’d read on the internet or forward some pictures that made me laugh. (This was pre-Facebook when everyone had probably already seen them).

The information part of the email provided my staff the details they needed to keep up with what was going on in the organization. But it was the ++Plus++ that gave me a deeper connection with my employees. It gave them insight into how I thought so they could see I was a lot like them. Employees told me they enjoyed reading my email and opened up and shared their own stories. It turned out to be one of the smartest things I did in enriching the relationships with my staff members individually.


Take Advantage of Technology

Knowledge Repository – Back in the day when I had people spread across the country and was trying to bring new people in, I found in our organization a knowledge management platform where people could go in and ask and answer questions, upload documents, provide links to more resources, etc. That technology still exists and has grown even more useful in software such as SharePoint, Basecamp, and Google Apps. When you can’t be with them in person, it’s important to give them as many tools as possible to help make them successful.

Social Enterprise Software – Additionally, if I were managing people today, I would push for software like Microsoft’s Yammer, IBM Connections, or Jive that create the social media-like environment within an enterprise. Our people are used to using Facebook and Twitter. Let them have the freedom to share and find solutions from wherever they can. Had I had one of those tools instead of my fancy fax machine, no telling what we could have accomplished back in my Navy recruiting days! And much more quickly, I might add!

Look Them in the (Virtual) Eye – Phone calls are good, but using an application where you can actually look at each other while you talk is even better. Use Skype, Google+ Hangout, FaceTime or similar technologies to pick up on the visual cues of your employees and to gain the benefit of eye-to-eye contact.


Good Management Is Good Leadership

Whether your employees are near or far, good leadership is the best way to manage your employees. Stick to being the best boss you can be, use the tips above, and the rest will work itself out.


What Do You Do?

If you’re managing employees remotely, what additional techniques are you using that work in leading and motivating your employees? Please share them in the comments.




Kelly Vandever is a leadership and communications expert who helps leaders and organizations thrive in today’s attention-deficit, entertain-me-now, wait-while-I-post-that-on-Facebook world.   Connect with Kelly and discover how opening up and speaking practically can bring you better business results. 

Contact Kelly by phone at 770-597-1108, email her or tweet her @KellyVandever.