By James A. Baker, Founder and Chairman
The modern workplace has become far more complicated and far more diffuse in the past few decades. Telecommuting, international commerce, far-flung business branches, virtual offices and frequent travel have introduced work environments where managers frequently have to manage individuals, and even entire teams, that they don’t see every day, or possibly ever.
If your employees are in a different location, another time zone, or another country, face-to-face weekly meetings or office walk-bys are obviously not practical management solutions. How do you effectively manage individuals or teams that are located somewhere else?
When managing remote employees or teams, it is critical that you establish accountability. You must be able to trust employees to do their jobs and to stay on task, even though you can’t wander by their desks or pop into the warehouse to oversee them. Create a structure for tracking their productivity, and make sure the remote employees are aware that they still answer to you.
Get the Right People
Hiring employees who will work in a different location or allowing existing employees to begin telecommuting carries an element of risk. Selecting trustworthy and industrious employees for such remote positions is key to avoiding future problems. Carefully consider which candidates or employees can be trusted to work well without personal supervision.
Even if you can’t talk to your employees face-to-face, don’t let that keep you from communicating! This is critical to setting expectations, delivering feedback, and even to making your remote employees feel like they are part of the team.
There is no excuse for leaving your employees out of the loop; use e-mail, phone calls, teleconferencing, online meetings, text messaging, chat programs, fax, snail mail, telegraph, smoke signals or messenger pigeons — whatever you have to do — but keep in touch. Do not let employees sit around wondering what they are supposed to be doing. Clearly and frequently communicate with them about goals, assignments, progress and problems.
Travel if Possible
Depending on your situation, it can be an excellent practice to arrange occasional travel to meet face-to-face with teams or employees in distant locations. Personal contact goes a long way in establishing a real relationship with your employees, and helps them feel like integrated and valued team members. It can also give you a clearer idea of who you are working with and how best to communicate with and motivate them.
Those who telecommute or work from home (as well as those who don’t) occasionally have problems maintaining a balance between work and home life. Remind them that they are not expected to be available 24-7 just because they are working from home. Overworked employees are less effective, and may risk burnout. Try to ensure that telecommuters are working comparable hours to the time they would spend in the office.
Managing Remote Employees
Astute readers may have realized that most of the rules for managing employees at a distance are the same as those for managing anyone else! Hiring the right people, establishing accountability, communicating well, setting expectations, and establishing a respectful relationship between manager and employee are always key to successful management.
The modern workplace has evolved alongside modern technology and methods that facilitate a more diffuse and varied work environment. As there can be many potential benefits to a company in using remote teams and telecommuters, this is a trend that seems unlikely to reverse. The ability to accommodate the needs of remote employees and establish a good working relationship with them will prove to be a valuable management skill as the business world continues to change and evolve over time.
Managing remote employees or teams will present some special challenges, but these can generally be met by a manager who is dedicated to maintaining a productive and effective team.