Are your remote employees watching Netflix instead of answering their emails? Are they missing out on crucial sales opportunities because they slept in too late?
Are they pretending that their work takes up a full day when they can actually get it done in an hour?
In this article, I’ll tell you how to know if your remote employees are working – and what to do if they’re not.
Let’s get started!
Table of Contents
- The Benefits of Remote Work
- Redefining Productivity in a Remote Work Environment
- 5 Ways to Measure Remote Employee Productivity (+ The Best Tools to Use)
- 6 Signs Your Remote Employees Aren’t Actually Working
- What to do if Your Remote Employees Aren’t Working
- 5 Tips for Having “the Conversation” with Your Remote Employee
The Benefits of Remote Work
It’s hard to argue against the benefits of working remotely.
Remote employees tend to be more productive, more efficient, and happier – with higher sales and rates of employee retention for the organizations that employ them.
Plus, there’s the money you save by not paying for traditional office upkeep.
However, your employees aren’t guaranteed to be productive just because they’re working from home.
In fact, from running a fully-remote operation for the last decade, I can tell you that many people simply aren’t wired to be remote workers. Without accountability, they’ll slack off.
It’s happened to me more times than I’d care to admit – and it’s why I created EmailAnalytics.
Bottom line: it’s on you to figure out how your remote employees are performing.
Redefining Productivity in a Remote Work Environment
Productivity in a remote work environment can and should be quantified differently than productivity in a traditional office environment.
In a traditional office, we can loosely gauge productivity by how many hours a person spends at their desk and how busy they look.
In retrospect, this approach is a bit stupid; just being at the office doesn’t make you productive and workers can easily pretend to be busy by randomly clicking and typing. There’s also the George Costanza approach to simulating productivity, acting stressed and annoyed to seem overworked when he actually has very little to do. There’s also busy braggers.
So let’s imagine a hypothetical scenario. Back at the office, an employee did 10 tasks in an 8-hour period. At home, they do 11 tasks in 2 hours – then take the next 6 hours off work. Is this employee more or less productive than they were before?
It all depends on how you define “productivity.”
Is it about hours worked? Or tasks completed?
Obviously, productivity isn’t always so simple to measure. But it’s important to consider how you want to measure it – and how you want to define work for your workforce – before you start deciding who’s “slacking off” while working remotely.
5 Ways to Measure Remote Employee Productivity (+ The Best Tools to Use)
There are several good ways to measure remote employee productivity, such as:
1. Hours worked.
How many hours are your employees working? This used to be a great way to measure productivity, but these days, it’s typically outclassed. To measure hours worked, use one of our top-ranked time tracking apps.
2. Tasks completed.
How many tasks are your employees closing out? If you rely extensively on task-based project management platforms, this is highly convenient and easy to quantify – but not all tasks are equal difficulty. Check out this list of our top-ranked team management tools.
3. Emails sent and received.
One of the most surprisingly reliable ways to measure productivity is to measure emails sent and received. Since many aspects of work are tied to email in one way or another, it’s an easy way to determine each employee’s workload – and whether some people are doing less than others.
And thanks to EmailAnalytics (hey, that’s us!), it’s easy to measure these statistics.
4. Active time.
You can also observe the time an employee is “active,” using various tools. For example, you might see the duration they’re “online” in an instant message app or project management platform. See our list of the top-ranked employee productivity tracking software here.
5. Remote monitoring.
If you want to take things to the next level, you could also invest in full-fledged employee monitoring tools. These tools may allow you to measure detailed productivity statistics, observe web browsing activity, and even track things like mouse and keyboard inputs.
6 Signs Your Remote Employees Aren’t Actually Working
Should you fire an employee who worked 39 hours instead of 40? Or give a strike for missing a single deadline?
Probably not. But how do you know where to draw the line?
All of us are guilty of slacking off, in one way or another, at least some of the time. But these are the situations where you really need to show concern:
1. Low-quality or incomplete work.
Is your employee suddenly turning in low-quality or incomplete work? For example, are they closing out tasks without actually doing them?
Or are they sending in documents with bad spelling and typographical errors?
Beyond surface-level statistics like active time or hours worked, if your employee is cutting corners and doing an unsatisfactory job, you’ll need to step in.
2. Significant drop in performance or productivity.
You should also be concerned if there’s a sudden drop in performance or productivity, however you choose to measure it – especially if there’s not an explainable cause.
For example, if your employee typically sends 100 emails per day, but that number drops to 40, it might be a sign that something is impeding their productivity.
If the number of received emails remains the same, it could be a sign of slacking off (and if the number of received emails falls proportionally, it might be justifiable).
3. Stagnated learning, growth, or improvement.
This is more of a subjective factor, and one you’ll have to observe over the course of weeks or months. Is this employee stagnating in terms of learning, growth, or improvement?
When you hire a new employee, you’re typically prepared for them to make mistakes and struggle with certain concepts. But you expect them to gradually become better and more consistent with experience.
If they haven’t made much of an improvement after a few months on the job, it could be a sign they’re not actively trying to advance.
4. Attitude or personality issues.
Are you getting a lot of back talk, complaining, or negativity from an employee? Or do their coworkers describe them as difficult to work with?
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This isn’t always a sign of slacking off, but it’s definitely a productivity problem. Not only are they likely failing to meet their personal productivity objectives, they may be dragging down the entire team.
If you notice attitude or personality issues, it may be a good time to step in – especially if you also notice a drop in performance or productivity.
5. They never seem to be available when you need them.
We all take breaks (as we should).
It’s fine to walk away from the computer to use the bathroom, get some fresh air, or prepare a snack.
But if your boss calls you 6 times in a day, and you don’t pick up the phone any of those times, it’s a problem. Employees who are chronically and consistently unavailable probably aren’t doing what’s expected of them.
Even if the rest of their productivity is on point, it’s worth having a conversation about it.
6. Breach of responsibilities and duties.
Employee responsibilities and duties vary on both an individual and organizational level, so it’s hard to make an objective, quantifiable assessment here.
But if any of your employees are failing to meet expectations, or if they’re shirking their responsibilities in a significant way, it’s important to take action and push for improvements.
What to do if Your Remote Employees Aren’t Working
So let’s say you have an employee or two who’s slacking off.
They’re not doing as much as they used to, or aren’t pulling their weight for the organization – in whatever ways you define these things.
How do you handle it?
1. Have a conversation.
I recommend starting with a simple conversation. There may be more to the story than you realize. For example, the employee might be doing additional work that isn’t being tracked, or there may be a temporary personal issue preventing them from doing their best.
In any case, you’ll address the problem head-on and cooperate to improve the situation.
2. Set clear expectations.
Next, set clear expectations. Identify exactly how and why this employee isn’t meeting your requirements – and explain how they can improve. Try to be as objective as possible here.
Instead of saying “you need to be better,” try to quantify it with something like, “you need to close 12 tasks a day” or “I need you available until 5 pm every day.”
3. Take corrective action.
With new metrics set, start evaluating your employees’ performances. If they continue to slack off, or if they’re not meeting your new expectations, it’s time to take action.
Setting up a strike system, demoting the employee, or firing them could all be options, depending on the circumstances.
5 Tips for Having “the Conversation” with Your Remote Employee
These tips can help you get better results – and earn more respect from your slacking employees.
1. Focus on what you know.
Don’t let your suspicions or hunches dominate the conversation. Instead, focus only on what you know for sure.
Instead of saying, “it seems like you’re watching movies instead of working,” say, “your task close rate is down 20 percent.”
Instead of saying, “you aren’t pulling your weight,” say, “your email response times are 40 percent longer than the team average.” Be ready to prove your statements.
2. Point out solutions, not problems.
As much as possible, focus on solutions, rather than the problems themselves. It’s fine to introduce a problem like slow email response time, but then shift the focus to resolving the problem.
Instead of harping on how slow the email response time is or the ramifications of those delays, suggest possibilities for improvement.
For example, “I think keeping your email platform open throughout the day can help you respond better,” or even, “what do you plan to do to respond faster?”
3. Keep it brief.
You don’t need to schedule an hour to chew your employee out for not working. Most of the time, you can keep your conversations and directives brief.
As long as you make your point clear and forge a path to resolution, you can both move on with the rest of your day. Neither of you wants to be having this conversation, so keep it brief.
4. Be unambiguous.
Too many managers and supervisors use ambiguity as a tool to avoid confrontation and preserve relationships.
While this can be useful in personal relationships, it leads to misunderstandings and additional conflicts in professional relationships.
Instead of saying something like, “I think we’d all be more comfortable if you were more available,” say “we expect you to be available on chat from 12 to 3.”
5. Don’t threaten.
Employees should understand that there are consequences for slacking off, or not meeting productivity expectations. But if you overtly threaten them, they’re going to get defensive – and possibly hostile.
Phrases like, “if you don’t improve, I’m going to have to fire you,” should only be used as a last resort.
Instead, keep your tone positive and supportive. For example, you can say, “you need to meet your deadlines more consistently if you want to succeed in this position,” and provide tools and resources that can help them do it.
This implies the necessity of improvements without making a hostile accusation or an overt threat.
So, now you know how to know if your remote employees are working or not.
Whether they are or aren’t, get ahead of the problem by visualizing your team’s email activity. As a manager, you should know how many emails they’re sending and receiving. How much time they’re spending on threads. How fast they tend to respond to new leads, clients, vendors, and customers.
You can find these metrics and many more with one simple tool: EmailAnalytics.
It’s an all-in-one analytics platform to help you achieve greater transparency in your organization and boost productivity at the same time. Sign up for a free trial today to see how it works!
Jayson is a long-time columnist for Forbes, Entrepreneur, BusinessInsider, Inc.com, and various other major media publications, where he has authored over 1,000 articles since 2012, covering technology, marketing, and entrepreneurship. He keynoted the 2013 MarketingProfs University, and won the “Entrepreneur Blogger of the Year” award in 2015 from the Oxford Center for Entrepreneurs. In 2010, he founded a marketing agency that appeared on the Inc. 5000 before selling it in January of 2019, and he is now the CEO of EmailAnalytics.