Managers Learn to Bond With Remote Workers
It sounds like the dream situation, but you'll need to employ some old-fashioned office discipline to succeed.
By ELIZABETH GARONE
Working with thousands of employees across 20 IBM service delivery centers in eight countries, Erik Bush knows all too well the joys and frustrations of remote management.
Mr. Bush, vice president of global delivery for International Business Machines Corp., remembers one conference call where he learned an important lesson on remote management. Employees were listening to a presentation by a project leader in Brazil who spoke nonstop. "He continued to move from one chart to the next without taking a moment to pause," recalls Mr. Bush, who is based in Atlanta. The speaker never knew his slides were confusing, because nobody could interject a question. These days, the conference calls Mr. Bush hosts are moderated.
Less-than-perfect experiences like that can be common when managing far-flung employees. But, as more companies expand their efforts away from headquarters, the need for managers to understand how to oversee remote employees is becoming more critical. Increasingly, managers of distant employees need to get up to speed on their own.
One way to avoid some of the common communication blunders among far-flung teams is to hire people who are ready to work in a virtual environment from day one. James Eicher, senior manager of organization effectiveness at NetApp Inc. and author of "Making the Message Clear," says screening potential hires on the ability to work independently and collaboratively -- or requiring experience with virtual teamwork -- goes a long way.
Of course, not all managers have the luxury of hiring their team from the start. In that case, it is best to pack a bag and meet team members on their turfs, says John Challenger, a Chicago workplace expert. Meet individually or hold town halls with large groups. These meetings are also a good way to set the tone for open and frequent communication with remote employees, says Mr. Challenger. "It's about relationships and understanding nuances and building trust," he says.
Working with distant employees makes that process harder, because you can't see the subtleties of how people react and it's harder to create a bond with people you can't grab a cup of coffee with.
Communicate each person's role and business objectives regularly, and establish agreed-upon ways to resolve conflicts and solve problems early on, says Mr. Eicher. Find out how technically savvy your remote employees are -- and get them trained in technologies you plan to use to keep in touch, he says. Remote employees should be comfortable with voice over Internet protocol, or VOIP; video streaming; and instant messaging.
And be prepared for the difficulties that will arise. Just because you're sitting at a desk after a good night's sleep doesn't mean everyone else is having that same experience, especially when a call crosses numerous time zones. "You have to put yourself in the shoes of the people you're working with," Mr. Bush says. "There is one of me and 10 of them."
Also, without physically seeing people, it can be difficult to gauge their ages, levels of experience, English proficiency and seniority. Try to find out as much as you can in advance of calls, says Mr. Bush. One easy way: check for personal Web sites, profiles on Facebook, LinkedIn or other social-networking sites, or a bio on the company intranet, says Mr. Challenger.
As much as possible, use simple, clear language. For Mr. Bush, one of the most common blunders is overuse of sports analogies and metaphors, which often don't translate well. Many employees might not understand the point you are trying to make. "Make sure your message gets across," he says, even if you are trying to keep the conversation light.
Managers should also work to develop confidants whose judgment they trust in each of the countries or offices they oversee. These people "can provide a rich understanding of the business issues while folding in the cultural aspects," says Mr. Bush.
When hiring team members for distant locales, one sure-fire way to be certain employees will be manageable from afar is to weigh how well a candidate can succeed independently, says Steve Eddington, senior vice president of operations for Camden Property Trust, a real-estate firm in Houston. He looks for strong people who don't need direct day-to-day management and who are also strong communicators.
Mr. Eddington, who oversees Camden's six regional operating centers and 11 district offices, also opts for regular in-person meetings even with staffers he's worked with for years, bringing everyone to one centralized location.
Mr. Eicher advises the same, especially for initial meetings with a new team or when introducing a new employee. "Having that first face-to-face meeting of the team -- building relationships, reviewing roles and performance objectives -- better enables far-flung employees to work effectively," he says. And, he adds, that first meeting can help subvert the hesitation people have connecting with and asking for things from people they don't know very well.
Finally, when it comes time to deliver performance reviews or critical feedback, try to do so in person, say experts. Avoid criticizing during a conference call or when other team members are listening.
On the flip side, successes should be announced loudly. Celebrate with congratulatory calls, emails or an intranet posting. For a particularly big success, Mr. Bush says he makes a personal visit. "It's important to ... help the teams understand how their achievements relate to the wider global mission," he says.
Write to Elizabeth Garone at email@example.com