Managers Must Make Extra Efforts When Dealing With Remote Employees, Expert Says

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By Martin Berman-Gorvine  


Only certain kinds of managers handling certain kinds of employees can really make a success of a telecommuting setup, Mark Murphy, founder and CEO of Washington, D.C.-based LeadershipIQ, said in a July 11 webinar.

Employees best suited to telecommute do not necessarily have the personality types one might think of first, Murphy said. “For a long time, people thought it's the quiet, loner types who would work best in remote environments,” but that turns out not to be the case, he said, because it takes extra effort for an employee to work in a remote environment.

Such employees must actually be “connecters,” proactive, and problem solvers, he explained, because they have to build relationships with people back in the office “such that they actually want to answer your email or take your call.” Anyone with a passive-aggressive streak or who is prone to rumination can't be managed properly in a remote environment, he argued.

Also, of course, people who always complete tasks on or ahead of deadline are the best choice to work in remote environments, although Murphy cautioned against the assumption that someone who “has a neat desk” necessarily falls into that category.

Supervising From Afar

By the same token, certain management styles are also best to handle employees working in remote environments, Murphy said. Such managers should be:


• “Indefatigable,” because long hours are often required to work with people in other time zones. Thus, a manager with a “nine-to-five mindset” wouldn't be successful.

• Company evangelists with encouraging personalities. Negative news travels faster to remote environments, Murphy said. “You really want people who can extend your brand, who are cheerleaders for your brand… who have a positive outlook on life.”

• Approachable. When calling up a remote employee, a manager should never ask “how's it going?” which is a greeting, not a real question, Murphy said. Instead, managers should ask their remote employees questions designed to actually elicit information and help the employees, such as, “What roadblocks are you facing?”

• Constructive, with a focus on problem-solving and not blaming.

• “Frequent and authentic communicators” who can encourage real exchanges with remote employees.


The Power of Positive Reinforcement

“The single biggest question remote employees have is, 'Am I just going to be forgotten about and whither away--out of sight, out of mind?' ” Murphy said. It's essential for their managers to keep such anxieties at bay, for example through having a conversation with each remote employee every month in which the manager asks about something the employee has improved since last month, what he or she would like to get better, and professional high points and low points of the past month. “If there's no feeling of growth, people mentally check out,” Murphy warned.

So it's also important for managers to provide positive reinforcement, he said. To celebrate remote employees' success, something as simple as having a higher level manager send a congratulatory personal email for work well done can be very useful. Or, the manager can “make it part of corporate lore on the next conference call: 'I just want to give a shout out for Bob,' ” followed by detail on what specifically the employee did. Other possibilities include posting praise on the team website, sending handwritten notes, leaving congratulatory voicemail messages, hosting celebrations via videoconferencing, and encouraging team members to publicly praise one another.

Getting communication right between managers and remote employees is critical, Murphy said. “If you get connection right, everything else will fall into place,” he said. To overcome “message attenuation,” he added, focus and frequency are essential, as is the creation of “simple, crystal-clear messages” that can't easily be distorted. “Daily huddles” (10-minute meetings) should be scheduled if possible, Murphy added.

Conference Call Pitfalls

But communication is not as easy as it sounds. For example, in conference calls “the same amount of attention you could get in an hour-and-a-half face-to-face meeting is only 45 minutes in a conference call,” Murphy said, because the discussion leader doesn't have visual cues from people's faces to see when their attention is wandering. There are some technological fixes for this, such as monitors that track whether people are doing other things like checking their email during a conference call, he said.

More fundamentally, the point of holding the conference call in the first place “should be crystal clear,” Murphy said, and there should be no more than three or four objectives for the call.

Managers also should make sure that at the end of the call “you know exactly who is going to do what and by when,” Murphy said. “Accountability is a monstrous problem in conference calls,” he said.

Another area that often causes problems in telework is that “in a remote environment, people presume they have autonomy,” Murphy said. If that's not the case, management has to let the remote employees know, he said.