Leading and managing from afar

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By Kae Rader

The phenomenon of remote working, that is, working outside an organization’s office or workspace, is here to stay and on the rise, presenting new leadership and management challenges.

Nearly 14 million U.S. full-time workers performed their jobs remotely almost every day in 2008, according to global human resources firm WorldatWork. The total number of individuals who telecommuted at least once-a-month grew from 24 million in 2003, to 34 million in 2008, an increase of 43 percent.

Enabling technology, globalization, and escalating fuel prices are obvious contributors to this burgeoning trend, but there are other compelling reasons. For example, the need to accommodate a dramatically changing workforce is a factor. The President’s Council of Economic Advisers determined that the percentage of U.S. households in which all parents work has increased from 25 percent in 1968, to 48 percent in 2008. As a result, many employers offer parents flexible work arrangements to fulfill childcare responsibilities. Some employers extend this flexibility for eldercare as nearly one-fifth of employed people are caregivers for persons over age 50.

Businesses are finding that remote working benefits the bottom line. The Telework Coalition reported that remote working:

saved businesses $20,000 annually for each full-time employee who worked remotely;

increased productivity by an average of 22 percent, and;

reduced employee turnover by 50 percent.

Environmentalists are quick to point out that diminishing commuter traffic leads to reduction of toxic gases and dust particles released into the atmosphere, and fewer chemicals washed into our waterways, wells, and rivers.

As remote working becomes more commonplace, leaders are challenged to motivate, inspire and manage from a distance. Articulating organizational goals, core values and specifying how employees’ work fits into the big picture are of even greater importance.

Taking deliberate steps to connect remote workers to the whole can lessen feelings of isolation and inspire a sense of purpose. Tried and true leadership practices still apply, but engaging in sound coaching methods and establishing clear communications protocols are imperative. Here are a few suggestions for effective leadership from a distance:

Connect employees to the greater organizational purpose

Articulate vision, mission, core values, big picture goals, and revenue projections;

Be specific about how employees personally contribute to organizational goals and the bottom line.

Set direction

Set clear individual and team goals with definitive measures;

To the extent possible, set goals collaboratively;

Ensure that employees clearly understand what is expected and how they will be evaluated.

Provide operating support

Ensure that workers have the resources they need to complete assigned tasks;

Ask what you can do to support assignments and performance goal achievement.

Provide coaching support

Build trust to foster candid conversations;

Dig deep to discover challenges. Remote employees may be reluctant to share bad news, and might wait until a problem mushrooms to crisis proportions;

Create an environment where honest mistakes can be made without fear of punishment;

Encourage self-responsibility for problem solving, but step in where needed;

Give feedback frequently and constructively, both positive and negative.

Establish formal communication practices

Schedule regular one-on-one phone calls, and conference calls with others team members or colleagues as appropriate;

Make yourself available for an hour or two after conference calls for anyone who would like to follow up individually;

Share updates from management meetings and organizational newsletters, emails, etc.;

Agree on email protocol;

Be accessible and return calls promptly;

Ask for input on issues, policies and procedures;

Whenever possible, meet employees face-to-face.

Monitor and evaluate performance

Give informal and formal recognition for a job well done; include remote employees in organizational awards programs;

Require regular reports that communicate progress on goals;

Evaluate end results, not how they were achieved;

Consider your own performance when evaluating your employees. Did you set clear expectations? Did they have the resources they needed? Did you communicate often and effectively?

Rader is president of Rader Consulting, LLC. Reach her at kae@raderconsult.com.