Thursday, August 13, 2009

When Managing Remote Employees - Use Discretion

Managers with remote workforces often puzzle over how to best manage this largely unseen group of employees. There’s the centralized “spider” approach, wherein a manager attempts to keep rigid, strict control over employee activity. Of course, we all know what happens when a spider’s head is removed from its body.

Then, there’s the decentralized “starfish” style, where managers relinquish all centralized control and trust that their people will do their jobs diligently. While a starfish can survive loss of a limb, it makes it decidedly less efficient in performing its daily routine.

Clearly, the “sweet spot” of managing employees remotely is to strike a balance between attempted authoritarian control and a total hands-off policy.

On the website, author Joanna Krotz details some salient ways to manage without micro-managing, support without smothering remote workforces. Among her suggestions are:

  1. Get everyone reading off the same script. Without guidance, employees will set their own priorities. It’s important that everyone work off the corporate “business goals” page together. So, make sure remote workers know what’s expected of them, when and why. This can be made easier by using technology tools that enable easy sharing and collaboration online.

  2. Look for accomplishments, not activity. If a remote worker needs to complete a defined set of tasks within a certain timeframe, and fulfilling them doesn’t require keeping a regular workday schedule, the manager shouldn’t worry about how they get there. Some people might want to work the graveyard shift to do their jobs. And, if they can accomplish their objectives in less than the “typical timeframe,” so what? Look for satisfactory performance, not punching of a clock. It is critical in a remote environment, however, to be very clear about what’s expected, and when, and what they need to do to achieve performance benchmarks—in turn leading to advancement.

  3. Work on communication skills that can replace consistent face-to-face contact. When on-site, employees can get a state-of-the-company snapshot by looking at a supervisor’s face. For remote workers, email and texting alone won’t do it. Institute a system that includes real-time phone conversations, and bring in remote workers for periodic updates and to maintain personal contact with other staff members. This can help defuse problems stemming from feeling isolated—such as remote employees getting involved in counterproductive side activities and losing focus on their primary job. Monitor corporate networks and remote workstations for signs of unauthorized activity, and establish regular checkpoints that help prevent employees from veering off course.

  4. Make sure all the “wandering devices” and technology are kept up-to-date, and are appropriately integrated with one another. Finding ways to integrate personal mobile technology, such as cellphones and home WLANs, with company firewalls is essential to ensuring secure and reliable communication. Just as employees need regular and productive contact, so do tech tools that facilitate meeting of responsibilities.

Managing remote workforces is a whole new animal. While spiders and starfish are intriguing creatures, neither is an appropriate model for how best to manage off-site employees.

Jenny Douras © All rights reserved