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The Secret To Managing Remote Workers Is Focusing On Results

Written by: Ed Gehres, Executive Contributor

Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.


Many recent articles discuss the current tug-of-war between employers and employees and going back to the office after the COVID-19 pandemic brought work from home (WFH) to the masses. Companies have a whole host of reasons for the demand, not the least of which are ease of supervision, co-worker collaboration and that expensive building that they have to pay for each month.

Neither managers nor companies should be so worried, though. They simply need to understand the secret to managing remote workers. Focus on results planned and achieved, not merely effort or attendance.

Pressures to return to the office are mostly weak

First, to be clear, returning to an office job is much different than returning to a manufacturing or lab or other job that requires access to special equipment, materials, or work environments. Of course, those workers were considered essential through the pandemic because that was obvious to everyone. The pressures being discussed right now primarily involve office workers.

Second, the pressures to return to the office are many. Managers have gotten used to the control of direct worker visibility. If Joe is at his desk and tapping away at his keyboard, then of course he's working, right?

Co-worker access to colleagues is another favorite that is frequently echoed. If everyone is in the office, then naturally, they are collaborating and getting lots of work done. Right? Or are they just getting back into gossiping like a recent article suggested?

Access to business equipment is another big reason for people to get back to the office. Specialized printers. Powerful computers. Highly secure information systems that are only accessible within a carefully firewalled operations environment. But does access to that equipment or those highly secure systems really require a full time "in the office" policy? Or is that overkill?

What about that expensive rent and all of that furniture? Many companies spend a lot of money to set up beautiful office environments, often in expensive office buildings, for their employees. If people aren't working in the office, that expense is wasted. But why is that the employee's problem?

Other solutions, including consolidation of offices, conversion to more meeting space, making private offices on-demand workspaces, and subletting excess office space to other companies, could help overcome the wasted expense. And all of these solutions allow for the independence and individual preferences of the workers.

Returning to the office is more about control than anything else. The problem is that control is focused on the wrong thing. It is focused on the physical control of the worker instead of the work product that individual provides. Control needs to be sacrificed in order to truly focus on the only thing that matters in business: results.

How to focus on results instead of office time

The secret to managing remote workers is focusing on results. Out of sight doesn't necessarily mean out of mind or out of control. Visibility of workers and presence in an office are not the same as delivering results. In fact, many workers report being more productive when they are out of the office. And the whole ongoing discussion of topics like "too many meetings", "how much time should a meeting take", “how many people should be in a meeting”, and "how to reduce time spent in meetings" start to have less importance when the focus is results and not merely presence or activity.

The first question companies and managers need to ask themselves is, "what results do we need or expect from this employee or team member?" The answer to that question likely changes daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly and annually. If it doesn't, your business most likely is, sad to say, stagnant. Because the answer is constantly shifting, the key to knowing the answer is knowing what the employee is responsible for and what they are working on currently.

Some examples:

  • Sameer is working on a design project for an architectural client. In this case, the results a manager is looking for are based on the process of developing and delivering that design. When is a drawing due? When is a mock-up due? Are there client presentations that are scheduled? What is the process for getting those put together and delivered? As long as Sameer is hitting the delivery dates and producing solid deliverables for each milestone, who cares if she is in the office, sitting at home in a bathrobe and fuzzy slippers, sitting on a blanket in the park enjoying the sun while she taps away on a laptop, or perched on a couch at the local Starbucks force-feeding her caffeine habit?

  • James is working on a client software implementation project. He has a design meeting with his client that he needs to prepare for and a series of configuration efforts that he needs to complete in order to prepare the software for use by his client. Again except for those times that James may need to interface directly with his client, where James works are mostly irrelevant as long as the work is getting done well and on time.

  • Maryjane is responsible for regional retail marketing for a consumer products company that operates its own stores. She has to prepare a set of materials for an upcoming in-store promotion, work on planning an event with a social media influencer who will be doing a live appearance at one of her stores and manages a small team of social media coordinators that drive foot traffic to the stores. As long as Nicole is getting this work done and is accessible to the people that need to contact her, there is no reason for her to be in the office all the time. In fact, it may be more important for Nicole to be at the store she has been working to support at the times that her efforts are at their climax.

Each of these examples involves three key factors:

  1. Knowing what the individual worker is responsible for.

  2. Know what specific projects their workers are involved in right now.

  3. Knowing what the process is for delivering on those assignments, so they know what results are due, what form those results take, what efforts are required to deliver those results and when each step is due in order to meet the overall deliverable timeline.

If you are a manager that needs or wants to focus more on results, that means that having a current project list and a plan or timeline or some sort of repeatable methodology for each project type is the key to focusing on results rather than office attendance.

More often than not, the definition of those processes, timelines or methodologies is something that your workers are not only fully capable of providing, they are also the best situated to provide that information. So let them do it. The production of those plans is one more result that you can focus on and track. And it is often one that pays longer term dividends in terms of consistency, efficiency and productivity overall.

Once you have methodologies and processes, and timelines established that define the results you need, you should set up tracking systems. These systems provide you and your team an easy way to communicate status, progress and achievement of results. It could be as simple as using a virtual index card or sticky note solution such as Trello. Or it could involve setting up a task management solution or a service ticketing system (where a "ticket" is used for a project) and requiring simple status updates.

Whatever the results expectations and the methodology for achieving those results, implement a system that is easy to use, easy to update and easy to access (including on a mobile device such as smartphones and tablets). If it's complicated or requires too much input, your team will hate it and rebel against or even sabotage it. But if you keep it simple and use it to ensure visibility to status and results without a lot of extra work from team members, then you will always know what's going on in your team.

When to still require office time

Although it should be obvious from the discussion above, remote, results-focused work does NOT mean no office time ever. Rather, it means a smarter use of office resources.

First, larger projects such as Maryjane's social media influencer event most likely require coordination across multiple team members and both internal and external contributors.

Collaboration is a dish best served live. Sure, some coordination is possible on video or phone conferences, but nothing beats getting people in a conference room to pound through details, present materials and gain approval or consensus on a deliverable or plan. That work needs office resources. And another recent article described how while remote productivity is up, remote innovation is down. So, when innovation is the result you need, people need to actually be in a room together.

Additionally, part of putting together bigger plans or programs might be setting up a "war room". If you've ever seen a TV police show where the detectives put photos or maps up on a set of white boards or bulletin boards and connect those photos and maps with string and labels, then you understand the concept of a war room.

War rooms are a good use of office space because they provide every member of the team assigned to that project a place to go and be immersed in the current status of the project. They provide a meeting space where all of the details of a project are readily accessible and visible. War rooms provide a collection point for data and strategies, connections and communications. They can be very worthwhile uses of office resources.

Occasionally you will also have the team member that simply cannot find a quiet place to take or host a call. Barking dogs. In home pandemonium. Poor internet connections. Bad cell phone reception. Whatever it is, sometimes a team member simply needs office space to conduct business. Of course, some of the distractions invite a broader discussion of how companies can make productivity easier for their team members. But one of the solutions is absolutely the use of office resources, and some workers report that they want to be in the office. So let ‘em.

Last but not least, some people just work better in offices. If your results cheetah prefers to work in a plush office rather than a home office, get them a plush office. Just like people don't all learn the same way, people also don't all have the same work environment needs, or wants. Ask the question: "do you prefer to work in an office, or do you produce better results someplace else?" Listen to the response and provide the environment that will produce the best results from that particular worker.

Focusing on results brings results

Probably the biggest issue with demanding a return to the office is that it focuses on location and effort and not results. It means that a company and its management are more worried about where an employee is doing their work than they are about WHAT is actually being accomplished.

Telling employees, they MUST come to the office sends a clear message that a company favors work location and control over results. It may lead to workers that come to work to get their time in and make a good showing for the bosses, but slow or insignificant results achievement. One of the productivity graphs might be interpreted to say that people in the office had steady productivity while working remotely, showing productivity could peak. Managers need to understand what drives the peak and how that peak recedes and adjust their leadership to drive more peaks.

For MOST office work, work location is always secondary to results. While work location can lead to or influence the quality or the achievement of results, it is not the primary factor. Remember to focus on outcomes and processes. Those guide results.

As a company and as a leader, if your focus is results, your team will also be focused on results. This means that the more you focus on results, the more your team stays focused on results, and the more your company will enjoy the achievement of those results. And in business, nothing matters more than achieving strong, sustained results.

Follow me on LinkedIn, and visit my website for more info or to get my help getting your team focused on results!


Ed Gehres, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine

Ed Gehres is the business and M&A advisor and attorney you wish you had, with over 30 years of practical hands-on experience building companies across multiple industries, and for start-ups through the Fortune Top-10. With deep roots in technology, he's worked with companies building solutions across multiple industries including digital marketing, transportation, entertainment and media, pharmaceuticals, and even cannabis. With both hands-on, practical business experience as well as legal expertise, if you’re looking to build, expand or sell your company, he’s the advisor you need.


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