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.”
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.