When Remote Workers Behave Badly

Interventions to overcome these behaviors become more challenging when employees are not physically present. The following five considerations can help manage difficult behaviors in remote employees.

1. Behavioral expectations must be clearly defined. When face-to-face interactions are rare, visual cues and reinforcements such as rolling eyes or shared glances are lost. Visual communication technology can help, but it likely won’t provide the nuances of physical reactions to inappropriate behavior.

Tip: Provide remote employees with clear, direct information on acceptable and unacceptable behavior in writing, through video training and verbal feedback. Many organizations, including the Veterans Administration, provide online materials that detail appropriate workplace behavior.

2. Remote communication may be misinterpreted. With today’s brief text messages, emails and phone calls, a sender’s intentions may be unclear or misunderstood. An abrupt email may seem arrogant rather than decisive. A long list of options may seem indecisive rather than seeking team input. Humor may seem rude rather than funny.

Tip: Provide formal training and ongoing feedback on perceptions from written and verbal comments. Teach employees to start emails with brief, explanatory introductions — “I’m preparing my expense report and need clarification on one item” — rather than just sending a question: “What is the current mileage reimbursement?” Ending the email with a friendly phrase, such as, “thanks for your help,” “I appreciate your feedback,” or a simple “thanks” helps the reader’s mood and prevents the reader from feeling like a servant.

Help employees effectively and purposefully use voice cues — inflection, pauses, pacing, volume — and carefully select phrases. One can alter tone or pitch to match intent while balancing volume or pace. For example, urgency can be relayed with a slightly higher pitch balanced with a slower pace to retain calmness and enhance the listener’s understanding. Avoid relaying intense anger, such as a loud voice or nasty tone, as the listener may become defensive and stop listening. Nurture effective writing skills with constructive feedback; recommend wording: “Your part of the project includes getting details from the customer by the end of business on Thursday,” works better than “you need to get numbers from the customer now.”

3. Remote employees benefit from clear, direct feedback. Employees in independent environments are somewhat isolated. They lack direction available in onsite environments surrounded by fellow employees.?

Tip: Be direct. The voice should convey understanding, but words should be direct. Telling an employee that he or she comes across as rude and aggressive may sound rude and aggressive, but the message is clear. Describe how difficult behavior interferes with work goals; offer motivation for change. Listen. Be a role model. Use techniques that promote sharing, such as open-ended questions, reflective wording and acknowledging phrases like, “I hear you.”

4. Remote employees have to get used to increased flexibility. An open work environment can be a blessing but also overwhelming. Difficult behavior may manifest due to a lack of constraints and grow if left unchecked. For example, if occasional angry outbursts are tolerated and not addressed, the frequency and intensity can increase and alienate customers and co-workers.

Tip: Establish required actions as part of a job. Provide clear direction about required times to be available based upon customer needs, not as convenience to a supervisor. Appreciate and acknowledge flexibility but add rigor and structure to give balance. A more stringent approach than was used in-person is needed when behaviors disrupt accomplishing the organization’s goals. For example, an employee interrupting telephonic team meetings with negative comments about the client and excuses for not providing an anticipated service needs immediate feedback from the team leader during the meeting, verbal follow-up after the meeting and written follow-up with descriptions of inappropriate and correct behavior.

5. Formal assistance can be beneficial. At times, an employee needs more guidance than is available from a supervisor or colleagues.

Tip: Verbally and in writing, remind remote employees of available resources, such as wellness programs, employee assistance programs, professional associations and interactions with colleagues through virtual or in-person meetings.

Managing difficult behaviors in virtual employees doesn’t necessarily require special treatment — only special consideration.

Barbara DeGray is director of nurse case management at Managed Care Advisors, specializing in workers’ compensation case management services, employee benefits and disability management consulting. She can be reached at editor@talentmgt.com.