Despite the well-publicized removal of the telecommuting option at Yahoo! by CEO Marissa Mayer, it is expected that more, not fewer, people will request to work remotely. The benefits are pretty clear: lower costs, higher productivity, and happier employees (as reported here in the NYTimes.) That’s great news for the 3.6 million Americans who telecommute to work these days. But it poses a distinct challenge to the managers of those remote workers.
How is a leader of good conscience supposed to 1) accomplish goals, 2) inspire creative mindsets, 3) foster loyalty and teamwork — all when the worker is not on site?
To be truly successful in leading remote employees, we need to shift how we see our roles. We need to get comfortable with new practices and approaches. Here are some steps that should help:
Get clear - Communication is a challenge at the best of times. You can present the same information to a room of people, and each person can still walk away with different impressions of what was just said. This communication problem is amplified when you have someone listening in on a conference line. Follow this 3-part process to be crystal clear in your communications: First, before the meeting, plan what it is you want to convey. Second, highlight it as you are speaking, ie, “And this is really important….” Then follow up afterward with your remote employees. Ask them to repeat back the most critical points of the meeting, i.e. “Tell me what were the most critical outcomes of the meeting?”Can’t imagine yourself doing this? Then read on:
Get comfortable sounding stilted - Over time and with practice, you can become pretty comfortable with the routine mentioned above (planning your thoughts, highlighting them when you speak and following up). If it helps, explain what you are doing to your team. Let them know it’s a new practice designed to help them be successful. The more frequently you do this, the more natural sounding it will become.
Round Robin Involvement – In meetings, be sure to involve each and every person — round-robin style. Create a consistent sequence where Ajay begins and Zuber ends the conversation. Everyone learns to be present and prepared, including the remote members of the team. They know they’ll be asked to comment or question at different points throughout the meeting. Again, this may sound contrived and awkward, but over time it becomes easy and natural.
Assign Partners/Buddies — You don’t have to be the only one interacting with your remote team members. Assign them a partner or “buddy” to check in with regularly. Encourage them to use these partners as resources or to get clarification. Also enlist the partners in makin the remote team members feel welcome and part of the whole.
Touch Base Outside of Meetings — Forget the formal meetings. Make time to personally connect with your telecommuters apart from meetings or project updates. Call to see how they are. Ask what it is they need that they may not be getting from you. Find out when they’ll be back in the office and make a plan to go to lunch with them then. Send interesting news articles and posts to them based on their interests, not just your’s. Create a relationship outside the confines of a formal meeting.
Use IMs Wisely — I have actually used Instant Messaging for coaching purposes. I find it incredibly useful since it allows people time to think through their responses to questions. In addition, a permanent record of the conversation is automatic. When using IM with a remote employee, allow your personalities to shine through, but remember that written communications are often misinterpreted. Keep your IMs as factual as possible, and use other avenues to carry on more important conversations.
Share the Load — As leader, you are responsible for a great deal: the vision/mission, accomplishing goals, developing people, reporting progress, and setting the tone of the work environment. But you are not responsible for everything. In fact, the remote employee also needs to own his/her communications with you and the rest of the team. They are equally responsible for connecting and becoming a part of something bigger than just themselves. Be clear with your telecommuter about what you expect from them. Ask them to reach out to you and others on the team. Enlist them in being more engaged and involved, despite their remote location. Help them see that all communication, whether in a conference room or on a conference call, is two-sided.
As great as telecommuting is for individuals and organizations, there is an added cost to the manager in terms of time and effort. But it’s worth it in the long run if you can invest a bit more to keep quality people engaged, no matter where they do their jobs.
M. Nora Bouchard loves IT and the people in it! She chooses to exclusively coach technologists and those with analytical minds. Learn more at www.mnorabouchard.com.
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