What it takes to manage a remote workforce

HR is used to being hands-on with employees, and face to face meetings and check-ins are a key component of this. This includes key aspects to management such as onboarding, injury and illness management, return to work, performance appraisals, workplace health and safety, and complex absenteeism.

Absenteeism is particularly difficult to manage, even face to face. Most companies do not have a centralised absenteeism management program, so absence is dealt with on an ad-hoc basis, without any in depth analysis into the reasons behind it. In this way, it can never be properly addressed and is often put into the too hard basket.

So how does HR manage a remote workforce in such a way that flows through to line managers and therefore employees?

The psychology of absenteeism

First and foremost, while many organisations might consider absenteeism to just be about sick leave and therefore cannot be touched, this in fact is not the case.

According to Steers and Rhodes, absenteeism is the choice of a worker not to attend work when expected. This is known as “voluntary” absenteeism or motivated absence.

What this means is, ultimately, whether or not an employee decides to attend work is driven by how motivated they are, as well as their ability to attend and perform their duties.

Employees who are fully satisfied with their jobs have strong loyalty to the organisation and will actively engage by being present at work. They also tend to look at factors as problems or barriers to overcome as opposed to reasons not to attend. Even when they are feeling slightly sick, they will still attend because they want to.

The opposite is true of employees who are partially, or actively, disengaged from the workplace. This can lead to complex and chronic absenteeism, which negatively impacts not only the bottom line of a business, but also workplace culture.


Motivation is key to reducing absence, and there are four factors which make up motivation:

  • Locus of Control: The perceived control a person has over their life and environment determines how much influence they think they have over their lives. A person with a high external locus of control is more likely to experience stress negatively, and feel hopeless when challenged. 
  • Coping Versus Defensive Strategies: Coping strategies are the conscious, rational ways an individual deals with stressors or challenges in their life. High absentees tend to avoid the source of the stress, and not attending work is a key defensive strategy.
  • Planning Skills: This refers to the ability to anticipate problems and generate scenarios to solve them appropriately. This skill requires a fair degree of forward thinking, anticipation, and personal organisation.
  • Self Esteem: Self esteem is typically low if a person hasn’t yet identified the source of the stress and learned coping skills to address the stressor/s.

Genuine illness aside, proactively managing absenteeism and analysing trends helps an organisation to understand where they need to better motivate their employees and where intervention may be required.

The return to work interview

To manage patterned leave, a return to work (RTW) interview has emerged as a key strategy to re-engage and re-motivate an employee and reduce voluntary absenteeism.

When it comes to the psychology of absenteeism, there are four main types of people:

  • Chronics: These employees have an unhealthy attendance pattern and more than likely their attendance motivation is low.
  • Under the Radar: They work to undermine the good work of the manager and the organisation. They are culturally misaligned and tend to blame others when things go wrong, and take the credit when things go right.
  • Dominos: This type has very low resilience and do not cope well with pressure. They have many stress triggers and have not learned the required coping skills to deal effectively with them.
  • Absolute Troopers: This type has a very strong work ethic. They are committed to the organisation, and being present at work is a way of demonstrating this. Since they have high expectations of themselves and find it difficult delegating, burnout is not uncommon for this type.

Research indicates that the single most effective action to reduce absenteeism is to consistently conduct RTW interviews for all staff who have been absent, however long or short the absence period.

It is clear that the reasons for absenteeism are complex and are difficult to manage, even without adding in problems of isolation and fear around personal safety. With a remote and scattered workforce, undertaking a RTW interview, via a video platform, is crucial to reducing absenteeism in the long run.

HealthGuidance says poor absenteeism return to work practices can result in the employee feeling no one cares. Lack of management or failure to escalate complex or chronic cases early can result in continued absenteeism and take up significant amounts of management time. Early intervention is key, and line managers need to know the levels of absence that require escalation and have clear guidelines on what they are required to do so that they can effectively support policy and procedure.

 The good news is, we can still achieve important HR functions like managing absenteeism and RTW interviews using specialist software like AbsenceTrack. This kind of software allows you to record, monitor and manage employee absenteeism in real-time, as well as track manager activity and compliance to drive accountability, and positively shift organisational culture.

To find out more about why mastering absenteeism is critical to strengthen your business, download our free guide. Complete with factsheets, checklists and quick tips, this guide is critical for any organisation serious about managing absenteeism now, and for the future.

By submitting this contact form you are agreeing to our Privacy Policy.