The landscape of the American workforce is changing. Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, Zippia, a job website, reports at least 26 percent of U.S. employees work remotely.
Many self-storage owners, operators, and third-party management companies have always managed their managers remotely. However, many more are managing remote workers since the pandemic.
In the industry, there are two types of remote workers: owners, operators, and management companies that manage employees at facilities and those who manage corporate employees (such as third-party companies or tech companies who manage their own corporate employees remotely).
Travis Morrow, CEO of Storelocal and president of National Self Storage, has experiences with both. The two companies are based in Tucson, Ariz., but manage employees all over the country. “National Self Storage closed our corporate offices in 2009, and we’ve been completely remote since,” says Morrow. “Self-storage facilities have always had a component of remote work, as owners typically do not work on site with managers.”
Due to the trend of employees yearning for more flexible schedules that allow them to work from home more often, human resources experts recognize the ever-changing need to adjust management techniques for remote workers.
The Society of Human Resources Management (SHRM) identifies 10 key tips in successfully managing remote employees. This article examines those tips while self-storage industry experts expand on the ideas.
- Set clear expectations. Just as you would with employees if you were all under one roof, employees need to know what is expected of them each day of the year. As well, it’s very important to notify employees if any changes are made in workplace rules or policies. “We have checklists that set expectations for what happens daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, and annually,” says Carol Mixon, president of SkilCheck Services in Tucson, Ariz. “Each list is customized to the individual store. We want to make sure we give them guidance on what is expected. They also have all our manuals online.”
- Be flexible. Employers need to recognize that remote employees may have to adjust their work schedules based on family and/or household needs and responsibilities. Morrow says employees who report for store hours are expected to be in the facility on time, but he isn’t concerned with the hours corporate employees who work remotely on projects are putting in.
“I’m not as concerned with the number of hours they are working, as long as they are accomplishing the objectives,” says Morrow. “All of our corporate employees are on salary, so they aren’t punching a clock. We only monitor if things are getting done within the timeframe of the deadline.”
Jonathan Lewis, vice president of people operations at Storable in Austin, Texas, says by its very nature, working remotely provides a flexible schedule. “We can’t enforce a certain schedule, but that’s where hiring people who are self-aware comes in. If they aren’t self-aware and good at managing their time, they can get into trouble.”
Universal Storage Group in Atlanta, Ga., offers some corporate employees the flexibility of working from the office and working remotely. “Some work from home part time, and some are completely remote,” says David Dixon, COO.
- Shorten virtual meetings. It’s a fact: People have shorter attention spans in virtual meetings; they can only stare at a computer screen for so long. All the industry experts interviewed for this article use some form of virtual meetings to help manage their remote employees. However, they try not to overuse the technology. Morrow says unless there’s something that cannot be communicated through other means, they only meet one time per week via video conference. “We have a staff meeting one time a week and everyone can meet with each other,” says Morrow.
Many companies began using video conferencing in earnest during the pandemic, but USG has been using video conferencing for decades. “We have been doing monthly Zoom meetings since 2005, long before most companies were doing them at all,” says Stacie Maxwell, vice president of marketing and training with USG.
- Track your employees’ progress. Of course, it’s important to track your employees’ progress, no matter if you’re operating a facility or managing corporate workers on special projects. Mixon says technology that has been introduced into the industry within the past 10 years has really helped track remote employees’ progress at the store level.
“We have software now that tracks everything online and in real time,” says Mixon. “We can see what managers are doing to collect rent, late fees, setting up their auctions, and everything.”
However, all the reports don’t do the company much good if owners aren’t looking at them. “The owners must know the software and get into the reports,” says Mixon. “They should know how to run their store before putting someone in charge of it, so they know if their objectives are being met.” Mixon also uses mystery shoppers to help track managers’ performance at the store level.
USG not only uses the software to track progress, but they also send out a report card showing where improvements need to be made. “If they are continually showing up on the report card, we determine what other tools they need and try to fix it,” says Maxwell. In addition to regular feedback, employees also receive annual reviews, which are delivered in person, if possible.
Diane Gibson, president of Cox Armored Mini Storage Management, Inc., a third-party management company in Phoenix, Ariz., that manages facilities throughout the state, says although the facilities they manage have different owners, they are all on the same computer system, which can be remotely monitored. “Some facilities also have cameras, but we feel if we have to look in on them that closely they don’t need to be working for us,” says Gibson. Mostly, they use the software and recorded phone calls to ensure their managers are meeting company expectations. Gibson recalls one instance in which a recorded phone call revealed a manager was paying someone out of his own pocket to do maintenance at the facility. “He didn’t want to do it,” says Gibson. “The person doing maintenance wasn’t an employee and that really could have been terrible for the company if something had happened.”
- Resist the urge to micromanage. While it’s important to monitor your employees’ progress and results, much of remote employee management is based on trust. Morrow says trust is the most important aspect of managing remote employees. “The ability to do the job really comes down to responsibility and trust, whether they are remote or in the same location as their managers,” says Morrow, “if we’ve hired the right person for the job that person will do what needs to be done.”
It’s about finding balance at USG. Their area managers show up on site monthly, or at least quarterly. “Some may not feel it is necessary, especially if they’re doing a good job,” says Maxwell. “However, some managers like that personal interaction; it shows them you care enough to talk to them in person. We had one manager who was excellent, but she still liked the on-site visits.”
- Emphasize communication. Make sure there are various ways for you to communicate with your remote workers, as well as they with you. Experts agree communication is possibly the most important factor in managing remote employees. In addition to the monthly video staff meetings, Morrow’s team is communicating regularly via email, text, and phone calls throughout the month.
Mixon adds that it’s also important to know your employee and what mode of communication they prefer. “You need to know the type of person you’re dealing with and what they respond to,” says Mixon. “I wouldn’t give a reprimand via email or text, but I have had a good response sending them an email that tells them they’re doing a good job.”
Storable has even recorded important messages for international remote employees in time zones that are several hours ahead or behind the time at the company’s headquarters. “They can listen to the announcement or meeting when it’s convenient for them,” says Lewis. Otherwise, he says video meetings are the preferred method of communication for important messages, followed by phone calls.
For some messages, however, nothing replaces in-person meetings. “There are just somethings that have to be communicated with that eye-to-eye contact,” Dixon says. “You can also pick up on many non-verbal cues you can’t see even on video.”
- Remember to listen. Communication isn’t just about your employees listening to you; it should be a two-way dialogue. “Open door policies” aren’t just for offices. You should be willing to listen to your employees’ suggestions; it may improve your bottom line. Morrow agrees. “We help motivate through weekly staff meetings, and that includes listening to what they have to say,” he says. “If we are communicating well, we build a great team.”
Dixon’s area managers do in-person meetings with their employees on a regular basis, and he goes out to talk to the employees at least on an annual basis. “It’s good to hear from them one on one, and it’s good for the employees to know that the heads of the company are listening to them,” adds Maxwell.
- Build connections. Working remotely can be a lonely road. Your remote workers shouldn’t feel like they’re working alone, so you must create ways in which your remote employees can build connections with their co-workers. In an era with so much video technology, it may seem simple, but there is a balance. As pointed out above, too much video interaction can bore employees and be detrimental.
Morrow says their video interactions aren’t always exclusively about business. “We have occasional cocktail hours in which we can talk about things other than work,” he says. “We also bring them together on trips to industry functions, which helps them build connections with one another.”
USG’s monthly Zoom meetings aren’t just about policy and business. “We broadcast cheers, sing ‘Happy Birthday,’ celebrate work anniversaries, share great things happening in their personal lives,” says Maxwell. “A lot of companies talk about the family atmosphere of their company, but we really try to have that feel.”
Storable also tries to help employees form connections with other new hires who come on at the same time. “When we batch new hires together it helps form a team atmosphere,” says Lewis, adding that they try to bring all the employees together at least one time per year.
- Provide ways to collaborate. Technology has given remote workers many opportunities to put their heads together to come up with solutions. Most of the collaboration happens during monthly video conferences and meetings, our experts report. However, if certain facilities have the same issues, managers may collaborate outside of those meetings, says Mixon.
Gibson says her regional managers collaborate each month on what their focus will be in improving performance or for training. The regional managers then visit their sites in person and collaborate. “We have several different people doing various tasks at each facility, so we have different eyes looking at different things,” she says. “We collaborate with each other to ensure everything is completed as required for auction and that process goes smoothly.” For corporate projects, programs that allow document sharing and editing help co-workers collaborate remotely.
- Celebrate success. This step is possibly the second most important part of managing remote workers, next to communication. As with communication, you must figure out what motivates your employee and celebrate their success or incentivize them based on their individual motivation. Mixon says that while a few are good with “good job” emails on a regular basis, more are incentivized by monetary bonuses, and others take something else. “Some people just love doing their job and like hearing from us and maybe getting a gift certificate to a nice restaurant,” says Mixon. There are some who are incentivized by special bonuses. She describes one store that was having a hard time with lease-up. When a new manager came in, he was asked what would incentivize him to hit a certain occupancy percentage by a deadline. “He loved fishing and wanted a jon boat,” recalls Mixon. “So, we told him if he did it, we would get him a jon boat. He did such a great job, we also got the trailer to go with it.” Mixon says it takes time to get to know your employees, their hobbies, and what may motivate them. “If they like concerts, maybe hard-to-get tickets to a show will do it.”
Dixon says the biggest incentive USG offers is the opportunity to make commission based on rentals. Dixon describes the tier process in which managers are expected to attain to reach their store bonus. The company also hosts an annual awards banquet, which adds a layer of recognition to the monetary bonuses.
Morrow views trips to industry events not only as a great way to help employees forge connections with each other, but also as incentive for working for their company. “The trips are nice and can be to places like Las Vegas, Newport Beach, and even Hawaii; I really look at that as incentive,” says Morrow.
Gibson says they celebrate employee success in various ways throughout the year. “Our major celebration is in person at the end of the year at our holiday party,” she says.
Industry experts agree that successfully managing remotely starts with hiring the right people for the job. Gibson says they don’t look at education, or even if the person has previous self-storage facility experience. “We look at their past work record and whether they’ve worked on their own and how they can be molded into what we expect of our employees,” says Gibson.
“Self-awareness is usually a good thing to look for,” says Lewis. “We ask them in the interview questions such as ‘How do you handle it when you get stressed?’ and ‘What do you do if you have a question about your work?’”
Kerri Fivecoat-Campbell is a freelance journalist based in the Ozark Mountains. She is a regular contributor to MiniCo’s publications. Her business articles have also appeared in Entrepreneur, Aol.com, MSN.com, and The Kansas City Star.