Leadership

It's 9:00am: Do you know where your people are?


 Today's workforce is located everywhere.  This geographic dispersion of workers presents some interesting management challenges-especially for the IT manager.  You may work in a high rise office building where your team sits across the isle from you.  Of course, you could also be working on a project where your teammates are actually in another building; or they could be in a different city; they could be in a different state; they may even be in a different country that is positioned across one of the oceans from where you are.  It is also possible your top performer works in their pajamas in a room in their own home.  There is a high likelihood that your company uses a combination of these scenarios in that you may have team members that reside in another state as well as another country.  I personally managed a large product development organization that spanned three countries. Regardless of the working model your organization uses, as the leader, you must manage your team as though they are all located across the isle.

How did things get like this?  How did we venture so far from the days where in order to find a co-worker that didn't work nearby you merely had to walk to another floor in the same building?  The answer is actually very simple.  Over the past couple of decades we have experienced mergers, acquisitions, various outsourcing scenarios, decentralization strategies, telecommuting, pressure from global competition, as well as companies chasing skill sets that may not reside in the same state as the home office.  In some cases it is as simple as companies trying develop a highly skilled workforce at a lower cost.  The company may be experiencing physical space problems as a result of an increase in the cost of real estate.  Each of these circumstances has left us with a workforce that may be located in many different time zones.  What does all of this mean to you, the manager?

We are taught early in our management careers that physical proximity of teammates is conducive to a productive work environment.  It fosters improved communications and relationships both at the group and individual levels. It promotes creativity development-sometimes simply from chance encounters.  Intuitively we feel that productivity and communications will decline as physical separation increases.  However, the current dispersed organization model seems to be counter to those teachings. Regardless of the current model, your job is to direct, energize and motivate your organization into working as a cohesive team in order to accomplish your mission-regardless of where they are on the planet.  You must ensure that all assignments get completed with "ready for prime time" quality.  You have to make each team member "feel' apart of the larger team.  You must deal with the technology and process issues that will develop in spite of of the structure.  Tasks such as measuring performance and completing performance appraisals are also a challenge.  In addition, you will more than likely be limited to the amount of travel you will be allowed based on budgets restrictions.  Therefore, you must perform these tasks from the office in which you are physically located which will distance you from the very team you are required to manage.

So the question becomes, "How do you effectively manage people who are located everywhere?"

The obvious answer is to use technology.  There are collaboration tools, email, telephone and videoconferencing just to name a few.  Technology will help the communications aspect of working in this environment.  However, my research suggests that technology is a less than perfect substitute for personal interaction and collaboration.

There are numerous techniques that have been developed for managing a geographically dispersed organization.  Unfortunately, there are too many to cover here.  However, from a leadership perspective, my advice is to "Manage the remote people like they are local, and manage the local people like they are remote."

What?

The biggest complaint that I have always heard from the people who are remote is that they feel forgotten-Out of sight, out of mind (to use a rather trite, but accurate statement). They also complain that they don't have the same level of access to the management team as the local people. They don't get the opportunity to run into you in the hallway on their way to a meeting. They don't get the chance to poke their heads in your office and ask questions or give updates on an important project. They can't just decide to join you when they see you sitting alone in the company cafeteria or at a local restaurant.

Your local people can.

There are two things you must do. First, you must make it easy for your remote people to have access to you the way the local people do. Then you must restrict the access that your local people have to you. The latter is obviously very difficult to do. In any case, let's examine the approach.

Your remote people could have a number of challenges in addition to their restricted access to you. For example, I had an IT manager in my organization in London, England, who had to double as the landlord in the building in which the team was housed. We were the primary tenants, so that role fell on us. Since my organization was the only one in the building, my senior person there was burdened with the landlord responsibility. There may also be time zone issues, technology maturity issues, phone system issues, language issues, and a whole host of other challenges. These are things that your local people may never encounter. Add these challenges on top of the fact that they cannot access you as often as they would like, and you can see how they could feel a little left out.

I found that the most successful approach was to have a scheduled time for everybody to have access to me. I made it a point to schedule a little more time with the remote people than the local people. For example, my London team was six hours ahead of my time zone. I would come in very early in the morning each day and spend time talking with them on the phone.  I also scheduled time with my local team. They knew that regardless of where I was on the planet, on Wednesdays at 10:00 am we had a meeting. Sometimes the meeting was a video conference, sometimes it was a phone call, and sometimes, if I was in town, it was face-to-face.

Managing a geographically dispersed organization is difficult and challenging, by not impossible.  However, it will require that you examine your management style so that your remote people feel that their access to you is as easy at the local team.  Remember, it's 9:00am and your people are everywhere.

19 comments
larryjoe43
larryjoe43

Ask his team lead. In most large org the people manager does not have time nor the instructions from upper level management to 'track' his people.When he hires a "newbie" one of the first things he determines 1.is this person a self-starter 2.Does he know what he is doing and 3. Can he think on his feet or does he need constant feedback. If he needs constant feedback then he will not like working away from the manager, those folks are the 'kiss-ass' types, don't feel comfortable with their job role and/or responsiblities and need constant nuturing, a pain for a manager with 25 folks on his team. So, if you want to work from home ask yourself these questions 1. Am I a self starter, will you get up in time to prepare for the day's activies? 2. Do you need constant praise or does the paycheck every 2 weeks give you praise enough. 3. Do you realize you will be putting in longer hours then if you worked in an office environ. 4. Do you have any hobbies if no, get something to do away from the computer better still something to do away from home..join a bowling league, play golf.

londoncityguy
londoncityguy

I'd suggest that communication & delegation are critical to managing remote staff. I'm a manager who has teams working with (I prefer with to for) me on 2 different continents. I'd say that I communicate and delegate effectively - and then leave the managers to get on with managing the people they work with. Of course, they then have to successfully communicate back to me. Yes, you can schedule time for everyone which is important. But each quarter, I go to both sites and spend a week at each to allow face to face communication. That way, many of the issues mentioned in the above article start to disappear. This level of travel needs reasonable planning and communication on my part such that everyone knows where I'll be/what to do. And the cost of the travel isn't cheap. But from a management perspective, it's worth every penny.

royhayward
royhayward

As one who has had the exact same job of working remotely with more than one manager, my experience is that some managers can handle remote employees and some can't. A couple of my bosses worked to keep me in the loop, and valued my ability to be available at odd hours. A couple others just couldn't believe that I was working as hard as the guys that they could see working despite my level or productivity. I have always out produced the guys in the office and have a reputation of creative excellence among my peers. But some managers can't seem to get their mind around a remote professional that has the integrity to work when no one is watching. This is amusing considering that part of our job involves being on call after hours. In the past we have worked nights and weekends without managers to watch, but during the day we are some how reverting to unprofessional hacks? When I took over the team I realized that some of the guys in the office would forget about the remote team members and not use or involve them in issues. So I started a daily status update in the morning the was a chat room. This got everyone online. I also asked everyone to keep their IMs up all day so that we could ping each other. I think this helped the 'in office' guys remember and see us. It seemed to help involve more of the remote guys in issues that cropped up. But I will say that I don't think technology is the answer. I think it is managing people as professionals and not as children.

Theaxman
Theaxman

I have had four remote managers in my career. Anywhere from across town to across the country. What I've found is that the ones that successfully manage this relationship do it because they treat remote workers as adults and not children. Trust, inclusion and self security are inherent in their practices. Very often I can tell the quality of a remote manager by the quality of their contacts with their remote employees (don't assume little contact is bad). I had a remote manager that would only visit if their was a problem. While another would fly in just for a couple of days to hang out. The key is relationship building and the best way to judge that is to look at their relationships with their local employees. In fact it's one of the reasons why during interviews I will ask to speak to a couple of local employees and ask about the "mood of the office"

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

I enjoy being out here on my own. No office politics, no boss hanging over my shoulder (not that mine would; I've got a great one! :D ), I schedule my own day, make sure my work is done, and go home.

royhayward
royhayward

If you think office politics go away just because you did, then you are in for a rude awakening.

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

My apologies if I wasn't clear. My meaning was that I didn't have to deal with it directly on a day-to-day basis. As I said, I have a great supervisor. He does his best to insulate us from the corporate-level stuff. My division is [u]completely[/u] dispersed. We all work in different areas; our primary focus is our assigned stores. Our offices are in our homes. If politicking directly affects us, it usually happens at least two layers up.

Theaxman
Theaxman

Office politics still exists. Only being remote, you may be unaware of it's true impact on you. A coworker at another company would always get face time with the boss, trying to push her ideas (or my ideas disguised as hers). I didn't find this out until a face-face meeting where my boss pulled out a document that I had created and shared with the coworker. That's why it's always good to get local people's feel for the office climate.

jordana
jordana

Great way to put it Wayne! That is exactly our case. I think that as long as people are willing, like-minded and responsible, it???s fun to work within this new dimension of different times and places. For my company, with a team of 12 people from around the world, working remotely has proven to be as productive and fun as if we were working together in the same office space. We deal not only with 4 different time zones, but also with the challenges of keeping everyone on the same page and focused on their specific projects and tasks. Technology certainly is our best ally it allows all of us, including our boss, to keep in touch daily via conference and video calls. But, what I think has helped us the most is the project management tool that we use. With Intervals (www.myintervals.com) we can organize our different clients and their projects and break it all down into tasks, which then get assigned to each person. We track our time, which is then automatically turned into our timesheets. We also upload documents that need to be reviewed by our guy in London or our client in Brussels, so in a matter of minutes we get feedback. So, because we all need to converge in this web- based environment, for us Intervals is that hallway where we all run into each other.

Wayne M.
Wayne M.

I don't mean to pick on a typo, but "Isle" vs. "Aisle" seems to be a strangely appropriate description of the problem. Too often, we manage across the isle (remotely) when we should manage across the aisle (face to face). The more direct forms of communication are most effective and we should only fall back on alternatives like e-mail when others fail. Too often, we select the lowest common denominator approach and, as a result, encounter unnecessary communications problems. Typo aside, the article by Mr. Anderson is appropriate and his focus on communications even with remote team members should be followed.

david
david

All of our UK staff are managed across the isle. But we treat them as if they were just across the corridor. Aisle be seeing you. ps Thanks for the article

dawgit
dawgit

Sorry, I had to do that. You must be in the US, The rest of the World uses (and has been for some time) the 24 hour clock. That in it-self helps to avoid most confusion. The answer to your questions is 'Communication'. Open communication between workers (made even easier now with the www) will make for a more seamless work process. And never assume anything, especially when distance is involved. Maybe I just got spoiled in my (too many) years in the military. In that enviroment it was 'normal' to have 'co-workers' in another part of the world. Funny though, how it seems Americans have more problems with time issues than others. Anyone care to explain that? -d (edited to fix my really bad spelling. Thanks Tig :x sorry to all who had to figure out what I was trying to say. -d)

larryjoe43
larryjoe43

I have 5 clocks on the wall in front of me.Because I have clients in 5 different timezones and meetings and patches are all based on Eastern timezone

royhayward
royhayward

and as an American I am just as confused as to why others have this time warp bubble where they can't seem to convert their own local time to remote local time when dealing at distance. But in this case and topic, I think time based confusion is the least of the problem.

Big Ole Jack
Big Ole Jack

Because lack of communitation creates a lack of teamwork.

Tig2
Tig2

Dawgit is in Germany. That would explain why German is his first language. He's also been around since forever (by the board reckoning). Newsflash- Not everyone on this board speaks English natively. Many speak it better than us Americans do. Lay off.

dawgit
dawgit

No problemo, The Tig just needs to kick me once in a while, I'm getting old. She's allowed. -d

Big Ole Jack
Big Ole Jack

Sheesh...are you guys always so uptight? I'm simply pointing out a typo and not being mean or rude.

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