Monday, October 13, 2008

Leading and managing your remote workforce

By 2009, one-quarter of the world’s working population will be mobile workers, according to a July 2007 study issued by Cisco Systems Inc. That estimate is probably out dated and an underestimate with the rise in gas prices over the past year. Most of the clients we have at Maver Management Group have some form of telecommuting within their organization.

What are some of the best practices for leading and managing this type of workforce?

The process actually starts with hiring the right type of manager for mobile workers.
* They must be results-oriented rather than process-driven. That is, they need to be comfortable seeing only what mobile workers get done and not what they're doing moment to moment.
* Managers must be at ease with email, instant messaging, video conferencing and plain old phone calls as their means of communicating with mobile workers. They can’t walk down the hall and see what is happening.
* Managers must also be able to empathize with workers whom they don’t see often in order to know when someone is under stress or is feeling isolated from the team and in effect provide the management touch to them..
* Managers must know how often and in what tone to communicate with mobile workers. E-mails and text messages are flat and don’t often convey the right tone, if any.

Managers who are new to supervising telecommuting employees may have a tendency to micromanage. It can be due to a sense of lost control. Remote employees, in turn, can misunderstand this as a lack of confidence in their performance. With little face time to resolve misunderstandings or to address questions from either side, such issues can quickly cause tension in a company. Those in charge need to make sure all employees are delivering on their responsibilities and meeting deadlines, in a way that makes sense to managers who don’t get a chance to know them well in person. Managers have to become comfortable managing by end results, rather than by face-to-face interaction.

As for the workers, there are also some characteristics that lead to increased success. The Cisco Systems study identified several critical traits and of course it helps if there has been previous telecommuting experience.
* Independent decision-makers, like to work without supervision.
* Disciplined achievers, conscientious and self-motivated.
* Emotionally stable, with low levels of neuroticism and the ability to cope well with pressure.
* Creative, open-minded and seek a variety of experiences.
* Organized with an ability to put their fingers on what is needed without outside help..

Too often, however, companies have allowed or encouraged telecommuting without even considering several important questions that this practice raises. These include:
* How does having so-called virtual employees change the nature of your business?
* Who makes a good candidate for telecommuting?
* How do you supervise such workers?
* What other adjustments must you make if your business is to work most efficiently?
* What are the technological capabilities of their home office?
* Are there any limitations to the time the employee can spend at their desk and when can they be available for communication?

This clearly isn’t as easy as it may first appear. Here are a couple of additional tips on the human side of managing this workforce.
* A sense of camaraderie can obviously be difficult to maintain when workers are in different locations. Email and Instant Messenger are important communication tools, but they certainly don’t substitute for face-to-face interaction. Schedule face to face as often as practical. If possible, have employees come into the main office on a regular basis. If this isn’t possible use vehicles such as Skype, MSN or other face to face opportunities.
* Make sure to include work-at-home employees in career training and long term planning. Solicit their input in creative decisions. Most importantly, communicate often.
* Have remote employees participate in regular staff meetings by telephone conference call. And send frequent email updates to all parties involved in a project, so everyone remains in the loop. It can be very lonely out there.
* Recognize that there are going to be time differences, cultural differences and language differences, so be prepared to understand these in advance to avoid the pitfalls.

This is the way of the future and the successful companies will learn to handle this well. Let us know how we can help.



John Maver
Maver Management Group
(925) 648-7561
Maver Management

View John Maver's profile on LinkedIn

1 comment:

BDempsey said...

John- your post brings forth a ton of great information. You seem to hit the proverbial “nail” on the head, although I’d like to add just a few points to assist your readers.

In addition to managers being at ease with email, instant messaging, video conferencing, and other types of electronic means of communicating, it is vital for managers to understand two distinct characteristics of those whom they oversee.

1. Comfort level with technology: put together any five people in a room, ask them a series of questions on technology and you will see a spectrum of comfort. Some people will be more comfortable communicating with higher levels of technology (twitter, facebook, sharepoint sites, etc.) and some will be more comfortable with the telephone. It’s important to have a sense at least as to where your employee is most comfortable. From there a manager can determine what means of communication are most effective for delivering various types of information.

2. Adoption rate of new technology: everybody does not adopt technology a the same rate. Some of us are on the bleeding edge while others are late adopters. Often times when companies begin to allow telecommuting, they rush out and buy all this really cool stuff (I’ll explain why that is bad in a bit) and dump it on their employees. Some are able to take it and run with it, while others wait to see how it works. Managers must have a sense of where their employees are on this spectrum. Missing the mark may not mean disaster for the company, but it will cause more misunderstandings, less interaction, and eventual frustration from both parties.

When trainers from SuiteCommute work with managers we often have employees and managers complete a communication metric. It’s basically a grid that outlines the general communication that needs to take place between the employee and manager. We have both the employee and manager fill it out and then share what they put, often times we see a lot of communication that is either wanted or unneeded. From there we design a new one that the manager and employee agree upon. This then serves as a model to hold each other accountable and make sure the Manager and employee are on the same page.

My favorite part of this post is when you talk about the “Human side” of managing. This is so fundamental, but 95% of the time overlooked! Technology alone will not ensure successful management of Remote Workers. It takes an investment in your people and development of their competencies. Traditional management styles have to be changed from face-to-face to more results (as you mentioned in the beginning of your post) in addition, employees need to have a greater sense of the process of their work. Who do they get it from, what do they do exactly with it, who does it go to, and how does their work tie into the overall goals of the company.

Thank you for a great post and supporting the cause of Remote Work. If your readers are interested in further information on Remote Work, I’d like to suggest our blog at
Brandon Dempsey