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What Planet Are You On? Six Steps to Simplify Remote Management

By Jim Bain

Managing people and projects from across the hall is tough enough. Managing people and projects from different cities, states, time zones, or countries is infinitely more difficult. You might as well be on different planets. And, as the world economy changes, this remote sort of management is becoming more and more common. Whether your organization has a sales force spread around the country, an engineering group located across the state, or projects you might be building across town, the lack of opportunity to “run into” the other members of your team can be devastating to the team’s performance. While there are certainly some advantages to a remote workforce, its downsides must be recognized and either minimized or avoided completely.

The goal of most organizations and sub-organizations is to deliver something of value to their external customers, their internal customers, or both. As such, the difficulty of managing people remotely has a direct impact on both the productivity of the workforce and the quality and quantity of the end product or service. To operate at peak performance today, managers simply must learn how to improve their interactions with remote employees.

Motivation and behavior studies over the last five decades have held that motivational triggers exist at differing levels for each individual. The most basic of these needs, such as food, water, and shelter are satisfied by means of a salary or wage and are not affected by the location of the worker. Middle level needs, such as the need for relationships, good work conditions, and the need to belong are simply easier to satisfy when people work in direct contact with each other. In other words, remote employees are much more inclined to be dissatisfied with their work simply because it is more difficult to develop the necessary relationships. There is limited “face time.” Fortunately, if those management hurdles are cleared, the highest level needs, such as achievement, the work itself, recognition, responsibility, and advancement, are not only possible, but often enhanced by remote working arrangements.

The key, then, is to take creative measures to ensure that those remote relationships are built and nurtured. Many people have experienced that feeling that they think, act, and speak in different languages than their spouse, their children, or their boss. They might as well be from different planets! How can managers make sure that they are on the same planet as their remote team members?

1) Start by agreeing on the outcomes you seek. Engage in true two-way communication. Be specific about the desired results of the work. Confirm that all parties understand the details of the desired results. Agree on a “get well” date. When will the project be finished? Remotely located employees have more flexibility in the “how,” but need to have fairly specific goals and objectives on the “what” and the “when.”

2) Get out of your office and go see your remotely located people. Whether you schedule your trips to your remote locations on a regular basis or a more haphazard basis is not critical. Visiting their turf, their offices, their project sites – is! Back in the 1970’s this was called MBWA – Management by Walking Around. People want to see you so that they feel as if they have access to you and so they know that you care.

3) When you can’t get out to see your people, institute a daily or weekly “How can I help you?” call. At an agreed upon time, if you and your remotely located people have not yet talked, part of your responsibility as a manager is to find out how you can help. This regular call will go a long way to building the trust that occurs more readily when they are just across the hall. Make this call one of your good habits.

4) Use technology to its fullest potential. Nearly, everyone is aware of e-mail. Videoconferences, on-line virtual meeting sites such as Second Life, and social networks like Facebook and Twitter, are excellent examples. While there is no substitute for face-to-face interaction, current technology can get you pretty darn close. This is also an excellent way to bridge the generation gaps that are developing in today’s workforce. If you are a baby boomer, learn to e-mail, text, and maybe even Tweet your gen-X and gen-Y employees. They will appreciate the effort just as inhabitants of a different planet would appreciate you learning their language.

5) Walk a mile in their shoes. The construction business is a great example. The office personnel find it hard to understand the difficulty of working out of a hot dusty pick-up truck with paper spread everywhere, no place to fill out all of the necessary forms, and Burger King bags on the passenger seat floor. Develop a “day in the life” program. Set up opportunities for staff from different groups in your organization to spend a half or whole day job shadowing each other. The experience will help different functions understand the difficulties each group faces when working away from the “head shed.”

6) Care. Take the time to communicate with your people in any form available. It will help to build those relationships so necessary for job satisfaction. Start by asking your people about their lives, their work, their needs. Then shut up and listen. You’ll be surprised what you learn.

The rapidly increasing incidence of remote management can directly and severely impact the job satisfaction for your remote employees. Decreased job satisfaction has a negative impact on productivity and performance. The reality is that special measures must be taken to alleviate those issues. Using these tips will help you practice the first three rules of effective employee management. And they are…communicate, communicate, communicate!

Read other articles and learn more about Jim Bain.

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