Remote Work Series Part II: Engaging, Motivating, and Optimizing the Performance of Remote Engineers and Scientists
Regardless of an employee’s location, the fundamental approach to managing them shouldn’t change
Part I of this two-part series examined how employers can utilize remote work — in nuanced ways — to expand recruiting footprints, land skilled candidates, and retain sought-after employees in a highly competitive labor market.
The key takeaways from Part I:
- If an organization is struggling to fill or retain people in skilled roles but has been reluctant to allow work-from-home flexibility, exploring ways to offer remote opportunities could be a win.
- Unsure if a role is suited to be fully or partially remote? Break it down function by function. Then, identify which mission-critical functions must be done in person versus which don’t. That’s the to key figuring out what’s possible when it comes to offering remote flexibility.
Now, in Part II, we address two topics that particularly concern employers when it comes to managing remote workers: engagement and performance. Listed here are five keys to success, based on the experience of two Actalent program managers, whose best practices are explored in more depth throughout this article:
- Have regular contact, meaningful conversations
- Focus on employee development
- Verify remote employees have a dedicated workspace
- Trust your people
- Measure results, not minutes
If the goal is to bring out their best, effectively managing remote workers, at its core, shouldn’t be all that different from managing onsite workers, says Actalent’s Eileen Gilas and Kristen Lyons.
That’s not, of course, to ignore the most obvious difference.
"Being face-to-face does have its benefits," Gilas admits. "There's more body language and, honestly, I think sometimes more emotions come out. But in my experience, being face-to-face isn't necessary to keep an employee engaged or to facilitate their best performance."
Both Gilas and Lyons believe engagement, satisfaction, and top performance typically follow a manager’s commitment to an employee’s professional development — whether they work in-person or from home.
The American psychologist Frederick Herzberg would’ve likely agreed. His Motivator-Hygiene Theory has been influential in business management since the late 1950s. But, more on that later...
Both are Actalent Program Managers. Gilas specializes in Laboratory Services. Lyons specializes in Aerospace Engineering. Combined, they oversee the engagement and performance of more than sixty Actalent science and engineering consultants, many of whom work remotely.
They both work remotely, too. Meaning they manage almost every remote combination that exists.
"I manage engineers where I'm the remote manager and they're onsite. I manage engineers where I'm remote and they're remote," said Lyons. "I manage engineers where I visit onsite, but they're remote. It's all different combinations."
Gilas and Lyons have helped dozens of Actalent consultants thrive in remote settings, especially since 2020 (here's example 1 and example 2). They've only seen a few struggle with it over the years, and the reasons varied. Some needed more career experience to be comfortable off-site. Another needed guidance structuring their workflow. In one case, an engineer had become less and less reliable. His otherwise solid work product grew inconsistent. With delicate persistence, Lyons discovered he needed help dealing with a personal issue. They dialed back his work schedule to let him focus on getting well. Just over a month later he came back full-time — and in a better place.
"You can hear it in someone's voice when they're going through something," Lyons said. "This person was struggling. But, with some help, and considerations, he was able to turn it around. And he was so appreciative for that help. He didn't think an employer was ever going to care enough to do something like that for him. All I told him, and tried to show him, was how much we valued him."
Typically, engineers and scientists tend to be a driven, disciplined lot. Aside then, from a health or personal issue, what are other factors that could diminish their drive or discipline when in a remote setting?
Let's start with something simple: Gilas believes having a dedicated workspace is vital for a remote scientist or engineer's success. There's some room for flexibility on this, she said, but sitting in a common room, like the kitchen or living room, or lacking a proper desk or office chair, are likely to whittle away at even the best worker's productivity.
"When I interview for remote positions, usually the first thing I ask is, 'do you have a dedicated workspace?'," Gilas said. "I've heard many times, 'I sit at my kitchen table eight hours a day.' To me, that's a red flag. Because when you're having to focus your brain on, let's say technical writing or data analysis, all those little distractions and discomforts will add up and you're likely not able to give your best effort."
A workspace doesn't have to be an actual office, either.
"It can be a bedroom. It can be almost whatever you want it to be," said Gilas. "As long as it's conducive to being productive during work hours, like your workspace would be onsite."
Assessing a remote engineer or scientist's engagement and performance levels, whether it's simply asking about their workspace or delving into something deeper, requires regular contact.
"The key," Lyons said, "to managing each of my people, and people in general, is to communicate."
And that's true, essentially, for any employee, they say.
"Are you checking in? Are you having regular touch points?" Those are the first questions Gilas would ask herself or any manager if an employee's engagement and performance were slipping.
Touch points are where relationships and trust develop, especially for remote workers. Without that trust, it's hard to evaluate where any employee stands.
"If you have a good relationship with your employees then you're going to know whether they are engaged or if their motivation is slipping," Gilas said. "If they're complaining or venting about a role, chances are something is off, and chances are they likely are not performing at their peak level."
And not every conversation has to be formal or heavy. The goal, though, is that the discussions are meaningful — and insightful.
"When we talk, I have my people describe to me the work that they're doing," Lyons said. "I've found you can gauge a lot from a person by taking that approach. In most cases you can tell by talking to them who is really engaged and who isn't. When someone talks about their work in detail and with enthusiasm, that’s usually a positive sign."
While managers can't control an employee's enthusiasm or lack thereof, Gilas acknowledges, they can greatly influence it.
"I make sure that, as a manager, I'm giving them new opportunities that are aligned with what they want to do and who they want to be professionally," she said. "I focus on doing my part to ensure they're not waking up, logging in, doing the same thing every single day, that there's something new and exciting for them to tackle. And if they need help, I help them, or help them to help themselves. In my experience, that's what gets and keeps people excited about their roles and motivates them to achieve great results."
Gilas and Lyons’ approach to managing remote work is, in many ways, aligned with Herzberg's Motivator-Hygiene Theory, mentioned earlier.
Herzberg posits that certain factors, such as achievement, recognition, responsibility, promotions, and the work itself, can increase, but do not decrease, an employee’s motivation and job satisfaction. He calls these motivational factors. Think of them this way: their existence brings joy; their absence, however, is a missed opportunity to increase joy. Essentially, this is where managers can win engagement and performance.
Conversely, Herzberg also asserts that other factors like supervision, company policies, salary, status, job security, relationships, work environments (settings, cleanliness, comfort), and working conditions (hours, treatment), can all decrease, but not increase, employee motivation and job satisfaction. He calls them the hygiene factors. This is where managers can lose engagement and performance.
Take work environments, for example. Let’s say employee "A" prefers being in person because they have a nice office and great co-workers. Employee "B" prefers working from home because they’re more productive (yes, they have a dedicated workspace!). "A" would likely become dissatisfied if made to work from home, while "B" would likely be dissatisfied if made to work in person. Furthermore, if either of them becomes less productive as a result, that could also prevent their motivation and satisfaction from increasing.
The question becomes: If "A" and "B" are both meeting objectives, what's the mission critical reason they can't each have the work environment that prevents their dissatisfaction?
The same exercise applies to other hygiene factors — such as supervision or interpersonal relationships — that often require varying approaches based on varying needs. Can managers find win-wins, person-by-person?
Thus, the same reason managing people is so challenging is the same reason we need managers: all the nuances.
That's why knowing your employees, especially your remote people, is so important. It will help you more easily customize strategies that aim to maximize their satisfaction and minimize their dissatisfaction, yet still align with core business objectives.
That sounds like a lot. That's because it is.
At Actalent, we understand the persistent challenge managers face when finding the time and energy to do everything, especially a function so intensive as driving engagement and performance. We also understand the challenges companies face when their managers burnout. That's why we've developed solutions that not only strengthen engagement and performance but also give back time and energy to our client's and their leaders.
In closing, here are a few more best practices from Gilas and Lyons:
Trust your people
"I trust people," Lyons said. "Managing remote people can be hard if you don't. Because if you can’t intrinsically trust the people that work for you and you constantly feel like you have to be watching over them, you’re going to be a paranoid mess."
Focus on Results
"If you’re getting the work performance from an employee that you're requiring, that's what matters most," Gilas said. "I managed a lab for years before I came to Actalent. I wasn’t clocking people in and out or monitoring their comings and goings throughout the day. I was focused on the main objective: did everything that was supposed to get done today get done? Were tasks done by the people I assigned them to? If not, why not? Those were the questions I was asking. It was never, did you spend 35 minutes at lunch or just 30 minutes?"
Not every engagement problem is fixable
"As a manager, I do whatever I can to support people, always starting from a place of trust and respect," Lyons said. "If someone’s performance needs improvement, I tend to stay pretty close to that person. I get their side of the story, along with lot of other sources of input, before drawing conclusions. And we have transparent, upfront conversations, discussing the steps I believe they need to take to get where they need to go. Not every engagement problem is fixable. So much depends on the employee, and how they approach their part. I have to be responsible for my part. Sometimes the outcome doesn’t turn out like you want. But sometimes the outcomes are great."
Manager’s: Check Your Own Engagement First
"If you have a manager that's not engaged," Gilas said, "chances are employees, on-site or remote, won't be engaged, either."
In Person Visits: Make Them Happen When Possible
"I take opportunities to visit sites in-person if I'm the one that's remote," Lyons said. "If they’re remote, I make sure to clear my schedule and meet with them when they do come in.”
Don’t Ignore the Signs
"There are signs that you look for," Gilas said. "Employees, at all different stages in their careers, should have an eye out for what they want in the future. If they don't, then that's a pretty good sign that you might be dealing with an employee that's not motivated or engaged."