When I started a new job and discovered that more than a quarter of my team would be reporting from home, I panicked. How would I know if they were actually working? How could I make them feel like a genuine part of the team? How would I gain their trust and ensure they came to me with their questions and concerns?
I decided to examine my local management techniques, and I learned that I could actually apply them to my telecommuters with a little adaptation. By focusing on flexibility, accessibility, and a lot of communication, I found ways to effectively manage my staff and make everyone feel like part of the group. If you’re faced with a team spanning the country (or globe!), try the techniques below to work with your employees, no matter the distance.
Pop in at Their Desks
In the office, it’s standard for a manager to make the rounds of her employees’ cubicles to check the status of projects or see if anyone needs help. So, in the same way, make a habit of virtually popping in at your remote employees’ desks. If your workplace has an interoffice instant messaging system, send people quick IMs throughout the day if you have a question, or give them a call to see how their projects are going.
This will not only convey that you care about your employees and the work they’re doing, but it will also create a sense of accountability. Imagine working from home and having no communication with your boss throughout the day—it would be easy to think that she doesn’t care about your work, or if you’re even doing work at all. That’s the last kind of corporate culture you want to promote.
Keep Your Door Open
While physically present employees can stop by your office with a question or even run into you in the break room to chat about a current project, remote employees are inhibited by distance. But they still deserve just as much attention as the employees present in your office—you can’t ignore their questions or let their issues fall to the bottom of your to-do list simply because they come in the form of an email rather than a frenzied shout from across the room.
Try to make yourself consistently available to your telecommuters. Although you can’t realistically be glued to your chair for the entire eight-hour workday, you should make it a priority to regularly check your emails, instant messages, and voicemails—and reply in a timely manner. And if you have an interoffice chat, putting up the little green “available” icon when you are around can serve as the virtual equivalent of an open door.
When I asked my remote techs what I could do to make them feel like part of the team, I received a surprising and glaringly simple suggestion: They wanted to know what the team and I looked like—they wanted to see a picture of each of us. It was something so small that it hadn’t crossed my mind, but I quickly realized what a difference it could make.
Being able to put a face to a name will allow your remote employees to gain a personal connection to you and the rest of the team, and vice versa. Most email or instant messaging systems allow you to upload user icons, so encourage everyone on your team to post a headshot, and take the lead by posting one of yourself.
Promote team interaction further by booking a conference room to hold a weekly call with your local and remote employees. Let it be a forum of discussion, so they can hear their teammates’ voices, ask questions, and work through problems together. If you can Skype or video conference, even better!
While supervising telecommuters may require a more concentrated effort, it’s an essential skill for any new manager. As employers look for ways to provide flexible work environments, telecommuting will continue to grow as an effective and affordable way for companies to expand. With the skills to manage both local and remote teams, you will undoubtedly be a valuable part of that growth.