Thursday, February 19, 2009

The Reality of Perception

The Conference Board recently published a report on Managing a Distant Workforce. As Linda Barrington, Research Director and Labor Economist, says in the press release, "The issue of whether or not to allow employees to work at a distance is no longer a cost benefit issue - it is simply the reality of doing business."

First, I'll just bullet point a number of the findings, and then I'll think a little more about perception and reality in the virtual workspace.

Some Findings:

More than 60 percent of those surveyed agreed that managing same-site employees is easier than managing distant employees.

Nearly 80 percent believe the extra costs of enabling employees to work at a distance do pay off.

Five practices were found to be shared among effective distance teams: in-person meetings; clear agreements on accessibility; good use of group software; adequate company support; clearly defined roles for members.

Great distance managers must first and foremost be inclusive, empowering, supportive, and trustworthy. Then they must have mastery of management fundamentals, e.g., setting goals, evaluating, giving feedback and coaching. Finally they must have a very high level of competence in cultivating relationships, focusing on outcomes,, and developing employees.

One more finding points to a difference in perception between managers and distant employees: 53 percent of managers reported spending more than an hour a week developing working relationships with distant employees, but only 18 percent of employees believed that their managers spent that much time with them. Hmm . . . a perception gap.

I can't afford to purchase the report, but I would love to dig deeper into why this large gap exists. Managers who are connecting with a number of distant individuals might well feel they are spending a lot of time building working relationships with their people. Each individual, however, is only feeling a fraction of that connection time. I also wonder what managers mean by 'developing working relationships' - is delegating a task by e-mail perceived by the manager as developing working relationships'? Does the employee perceive it in the same way? A manager might spend a considerable amount of time crafting an e-mail that an employee reads in a few minutes, and so the subjective perception of time spent in developing a working relationship can be very different from manager to employee. Would the employee perceive the delegation interaction differently if it had been conducted via a telephone call? Perception is complicated and slippery, which is why I find statistical data often raises more questions than it answers. Don't get me wrong, statistical data has a place as a complement to thought (but not as a substitute for thought).

Whose perception is more accurate, the manager's or employee's? As in communication, we must look at effectiveness from the point of view of the receiver. If the message received is not the intended message the communication fails, regardless of how much time or effort the sender spent in communicating. In terms of the amount and effectiveness of time spent on developing working relationships, the focus must be on the perceptions of distant employees (receivers), not those of the managers (senders).

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