How To Be A Leader Of Employees You Never See

Just because you aren't in the same office doesn't mean you can't be a good manager. Here's how an effective long-distance manager can debunk the myth "out of sight, out of mind."

Telecommuting is fine for individual contributors. But what if you’re in management? Then you need to be with your team, right?

Sometimes. For a reasonable number of organizations, the answer isn’t always yes. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 38% of Americans with bachelor’s degrees did some work from home on an average workday. Meanwhile, in a recent survey from Staples, 71% of telecommuters consider the ability to work from home an important factor in taking a new job. When people taste freedom, they don’t go back. Organizations that want these people have to accommodate telecommuting requests—even in management.

Here’s how to manage when you’re not in the office, but the people you manage generally are.

Get the right tools

Most mobile workers have laptops and cell phones, so that’s not an issue. But Monica Rysavy, who does project management for Pennsylvania State University, but lives exactly three hours and seven minutes away in Delaware, has found that social media tools help. People "didn’t reply very fast" to email, which impeded project speed. Since everyone loves social media alerts, she moved a lot of communication to Yammer, a platform that's similiar Facebook, but is only accessible inside organizations. That solved the problem.

She also has a lot of conversations via Skype because of its video functionality. "I didn’t want to remind them all the time that I was a telecommuter," she says. When you see a television personality in person, your first thought is that you know that person. Skype meetings trigger the same response the next time you see the person. You’re familiar. You’re old pals—even if you’re miles away.

Know that virtual doesn’t mean completely virtual

Managers who’ve won telecommuting arrangements need to recognize that they will never be 100% virtual—and that’s not a bad thing. Rysavy makes that three-hour, seven-minute drive at least once a week during the academic year to conduct meetings and stay part of the culture.

Cornelia Daheim, managing partner at Z_punkt, a Cologne, Germany-based foresight consulting company, goes to the office roughly two days per week. Face-to-face meetings "do add another dimension and are critical for team spirit," she says. You don’t need to always be in the same place, she says, but you should aim for sometimes and regularly. "And this simply needs to be prioritized in order to happen."

Give each direct report what she needs

Daheim finds that different people need different amounts of communication. While one person might be perfectly happy to go a few days without hearing from his or her manager, she says, another might need one or two short catch-up calls during that period, so that he or she feels "in the loop" and on this basis can still work productively. There is no one-size-fits-all solution, but management is all about figuring out what produces people’s best performances.

Don’t hesitate to pick up the phone

Roxanne Gaskins, a senior program manager lead for Microsoft, is based in Florida, but she manages global teams in India, Canada, and Seattle, among other locations. Some managers rely on status reports or emails, but she doesn’t think that’s enough.

"I talk to all my people at least once a week. Everybody should have a chance to hear my voice and vice versa," she says. "You find out what people are really thinking and feeling. You don’t get a lot of that in bullet points on an email."

Working with a team in India means you’ll be making calls at 9 p.m. or 10 p.m. on the East Coast, but that’s part of the trade off for skipping the flight over there.

Set clear expectations

"I set very clear expectations with new team members," Gaskins says. "They set goals and work toward those goals. If it’s not going to happen, then maybe having a remote boss isn’t for them."

There may be other teams that person would be better suited for. "It’s not for everybody," she says. "You have to have a lot of discipline."

Understand that management is political

Rising through the ranks is partly about how you are perceived. Virtual managers need to work to be perceived as team players even when they’re not onsite. "When I go up we go out to dinner," says Rysavy about her weekly journey to Pennsylvania. "I didn’t really socialize much with co-workers before," she says. She says she now makes the effort. "It’s helped in terms of keeping that communication going when I’m not there."

Also, keep in mind that commitment to virtual arrangements waxes and wanes with different regimes. Be sure to cultivate high-level sponsors, document big wins, and have a back-up plan. Gaskins’s group recently decided to move away from remote management, and she didn’t want to move to Seattle. Now, she’s transitioning to another role in a group that’s fine with it.

Empower people

The good news is that if you do have good people on your team, there are upsides to not breathing down their necks. It shows that you trust them. "People in the team can take responsibility and work on their own terms," says Daheim. Even if your people aren’t working remotely like you are, giving them autonomy is a valuable currency in its own right.

[Image: Flickr user Mike McCune]

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2 Comments

  • Telecommuting is a sure factor that will offer millions of jobs across the world. In fact, there is an infographic that shows why a lot of people are liking it - http://www.staff.com/blog/working-from-home-is-it-the-future/

    I work from home as a freelancer and I am very happy with my job. I can work anytime/anywhere I like and everything is flexible. This type of work is even predicted to grow rapidly in the next couple of years as more people are getting into this hype.

  • David L. Hancock

    Laura! What a great resource. Thank you so much for sharing! Keep up the good (hard) work.