Monday, August 22, 2011

Managing Remote Workers

I was talking with a friend the other day who works full time from her home. She’s employed by a major US bank investigating possible account fraud. I know she enjoys her work, and gets a thrill from the chase and capture! While enjoying what she does – and eliminating the hours and costs spent commuting every week – I could tell she wasn’t thrilled by the remote working arrangement.

What were some of the issues?

·         Isolation – very rare contact from her manager

·         Increased misunderstandings – when the manager is heard from, the communications tend to be vague, imprecise

·         Working longer hours – what was commuting time is now considered to be part of the normal working day, or that the boundaries between work and home disappear altogether

·         No feedback – no expressions of thanks or “Let’s see if we can work together and streamline that process.”

·         Perceived unfairness – those in HQ doing very similar work are on higher pay grades

·         Out of the loop regarding opportunities – “No, I didn’t hear about that new position!”

Simply put, my neighbor’s major problem was that she was caught in the ‘out-of-sight, out-of-mind’ trap – a not uncommon feeling for remote workers.

The problem is not with remote working per se, but with the management of remote working. If anything is going to reveal deficiencies in management skills, it is management of remote workers.

Ten Tips

Switch perspectives – put yourself in the remote worker’s shoes for a while. What kind of positive and negative feelings and thoughts would you most likely experience? Show empathy for the tough sides of remote working.

Make contact frequently – you might think you give each of your remote workers a lot of your time, but they will perceive the time you spend as far less. And don’t make every contact about work; build a relationship and develop trust.

Make expectations clear – don’t leave remote workers trying to read your mind. Distance amplifies uncertainty, and it is the role of the remote manager to provide a sense of structure through clear roles and responsibilities, precise objectives, and performance measures. Create ways by which remote workers can monitor their own performance and not always have to wait for your feedback.

Be accessible – don’t disappear into the virtual black hole, never to be seen again. Let remote workers know how they can best contact you, and when. Share your calendar.

Promote network building – remote workers may not work as a team, but they can still support each other, share knowledge and best practices, and establish a ‘virtual water cooler’ – through social media, for example.

Standardize – create standard tools, templates and processes where you can. The research points to higher productivity levels among remote workers, but they can’t be if they often have to invent and reinvent their own ways of working.

Stay alert – look for warning signs that all is not well, e.g., being unresponsive, changes in the tone of communicating. Act quickly to resolve any issues because distance tends to make small problems big problems very quickly.

Close the feedback loop – feedback and coaching can be wonderful gifts, but sometimes distance causes them to be left open-ended. It is easy to lose track and miss following through effectively, and that can feel like neglect leading to resentment.

Inspire - it’s so easy to lose sight of people’s emotional needs when they’re at a distance. In my view, remote management should be made up of about 40 percent management and 60 percent leadership. The management side can facilitate work getting done efficiently and effectively, but that by itself doesn’t engage people. Let remote workers know how their work is important to the bigger picture - how it contributes to the success of the unit, the division, the organization, to the wider community. We all need to feel we’re part of something bigger than ourselves, and for remote workers to feel that way requires the inspirational touch as well as the transactional instruction.

Focus on what matters – results are what matter, not whether someone has sat handcuffed to a computer for 8 hours or more (the ‘presenteeism’ school of management thought). For some managers this requires a mindset shift, and a letting go of fears about ‘What are they doing out there?’

With clear accountabilities, objectives and measures – and with treating people with respect and consideration no matter where they are located – our remote colleagues can be extraordinarily productive and successful.

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