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Being an e-manager


Your company is moving headlong into ework. Your IT infrastructure has come on leaps and bounds in the past few years. And your staff are working remotely. This is a new environment for exercising your management skills. So what are the keys to success? 

Most of the core skills are still the same

Roles vary widely, of course, but many of the core skills are common to most managers: organising workloads, supervision, motivating, team-building, ensuring quality, troubleshooting, listening, disciplining and initiating improvements. The differences lie in the processes of interaction with staff and with their work.

People skills at a distance

To some extent the novelty of managing workers at a distance is exaggerated. Managing workers that you don't see every day has been going on for years - centuries, even. Sales teams, field staff, truck drivers, account managers, cleaners and caterers working for third party service providers, overseas aid workers, office staff working on multiple sites...the list is almost endless.

One way to look at it is that the varieties of record-keeping, monitoring, supervision and motivational techniques which have been used traditionally can be given a new dimension by using information age tools. Scuttling to and fro with bits of paper can be replaced by electronic communication. Decisions can be made instantly where perhaps previously it might have been necessary to wait for a visit.

Two important principles apply:

  • maintain a high level of contact - encouraging a two-way (and colleague-to-colleague) flow of communication.
    And this needs to go beyond the purely work-related, to personal and social exchanges. This is particularly the case if e-workers are working primarily on their own.

  • formalising processes which might be informal if you shared an office - e.g. what previously could have been a comment to a roomful of people about what happened at a meeting may now need to go in a briefing note circulated to the dispersed workforce

One manager has called this "walking the job electronically". In some ways, managing remotely means being in closer touch with staff than ever.

Being a remote manager

People rooted in traditional ways of working often assume that managers need to be "on hand" or "always available" to deal with issues that arise from higher or lower in the staff hierarchy. And the assumption is that this means being on the premises.

This can be the case in certain kinds of jobs where a physical hands-on approach is needed. But for many management tasks in an ework environment being tied to one workplace is inefficient. For two basic reason:

  • the workforce to manage is somewhere else

  • the task of management is better carried out in another place, or other places. This could be out visiting remote staff, or it could be in a home office for essential desk-based work.

The expectation to have key staff always on hand can be an indication of a disorganised work culture, where managers spend their days being reactive and solving problems that wouldn't arise if work were properly managed.

It's worth noting that being on the premises does not mean that a person is available. Managers are frequently "unavailable" because they are tied up in meetings. So reducing the number of meeting through effective information sharing can increase availability. In fact working at home can potentially  increase availability, as the manager will not be constantly called in to closed rooms for face-to-face encounters.

Don't forget the telephone!

When people go overboard for ework, they often focus exclusively on the IT systems needed. Seamless access to all the office systems is highly desirable. but in achieving this, has the phone system been neglected?

This applies to both the telephony equipment and infrastructure, and to using it.

Kit and infrastructure: does telephony work as seamlessly as if it were part of the internal phone system? If not, this can cause problems. Relying on the home phone may mean that the worker is uncontactable if a family member is using the line, or inappropriate voicemail/answerphone messages, or a child answering a call - and friction between home and work. 

And do your workers' business cards look like this?

A single number where the worker can be contacted is best both for the manager and for external clients. And can the worker transfer calls back to the office, or to other colleagues? can he put a caller on hold while he buzzes through to you for a quick decision on something?

Getting the telephony right is vital for "walking the job electronically".

Using the telephone: with the introduction of email, it seems that many workers are losing the power of speech. Instead of phoning someone to arrange a meeting, they email them and everything takes five times longer to set up. Rather than call a friend to see if they're going for lunch, they send an email. This is happening even within the same building, or even room, in many organisations. For the e-manager, lack of direct verbal communication spells disaster. A flow of useful email contact is bound to be necessary - but it will be far from sufficient to keep the virtual office running smoothly.

Email overload

Managers across the western world, and beyond I daresay, raise a continuous lament about the volume of email pouring into their mailboxes. But there's also a sub-text of perverse pride when someone says - "I was only away for a week, but when I got back there were 400 emails in my inbox". Meaning: "Look how important I am!"

A high volume of email might indicate importance, popularity or indispensability. But in reality it probably indicates a workplace culture where:

  • there are no proper policies on email use

  • knowledge management is weak

  • work is badly organised, and too many people have fingers in too many pies

  • people are timid about taking responsibility (and copy everything to everyone up the command chain), and/or

  • people have the kind of unruly ambition where they hope to impress by needlessly informing managers or influential colleagues of what they are doing

  • people are just wasting time circulating jokes, chit-chat, etc

The effective e-manager will make it clear

  • who should be informed about what

  • how to use online collaborative tools 

  • how and where on the system to file documents (rather than to attach every draft to an email and copy it to everyone)

  • the type and level of social communication that's OK

  • when it's best to use the phone.

High value face-to-face

The key justification for remote working runs something like this. With modern technologies it's absurd to make people travel for miles to sit in expensive-to-run premises to spend all day using computers and the telephone - this can be done from anywhere. And that's largely true.

But there's more to managing a successful organisation than putting people together with computers and telephones. For many of the key management tasks - motivating, team-building, appraising, innovating etc - the power of face-to-face makes it the best choice. There is usually little benefit in field staff trudging in each morning to pick up their schedule - this can be done over the networks. Getting staff together for team-building or awareness-raising events, and occasional special events can have added power through not being part of the daily routine. 

Choosing the right environment for the face-to-face is important. Whether it's for a brain-storming session, a special briefing or a social event, it's unlikely that the old office with its ranks of workstations is the ideal environment. So imaginative approaches to the location for get-togethers will be called for. 

For some e-managers this may mean taking to the road. Visiting the e-workers where they are working, or at a location convenient to them. For home-based workers, sensitivity will be required to the fact that the workplace is also a home. But procedures for supervision, risk assessment etc should have been written into the original agreement between the home-based employee and the employer.

"Management by results rather than presence" ?

"Management by results rather than presence" is a mantra of many gurus on e-work. And it is often the case that the key to making remote work succeed is to accept that visible presence is often a poor guide to the value of a person's work. Output can be measured, wherever a person is located.

This statement has to be modified, however, by the rider "if it's that kind of job". It may be true for a policy worker who needs time and space without interruption to write reports. Many kinds of location-independent work, however, do need to be monitored on a time/presence basis. For example, a home based call-centre operator must be in place to answer calls at the times they are contracted to. The same is to varying extents true of any client-facing worker - they will be expected to be available to the client at certain times.

And in all cases, an e-manager is likely to want to know how long jobs are taking - i.e. how much someone is "present" at their workplace, even if not in the line of sight. Results are fine, but unless a manager knows how long it takes to achieve those results, effective work planning is impossible. 

E-Work isn't just about the staff being somewhere else

E-work isn't just about about having the staff telework from non-traditional locations. It's about seeing that tasks are done in the most effective way, from the most effective location.

Sometimes this may be from the office. For example, it may be possible to carry out remote monitoring, or remote diagnostics, using the electronic networks. It may be possible to eliminate meetings by online collaboration, or videoconferencing. 

So a key part of being an effective e-manager is modernising business processes to enable e-work and e-business, and ensuring that staff are expert in using the new systems and processes.

Health and psychological well-being

How do you deal with staff absences through sickness when the individual's home is also the main place of work? I know someone who, on the occasions they phoned in sick, was always asked something on the lines of "What can you get done then?", or "You'll be able to finish of the such-and-such report, then?"

It is legitimate in certain circumstances to think that someone can manage a couple of hours working when they certainly would be unfit for a whole days work. This can be the case for a short illness, or for long-term illnesses or recurrent conditions. But it's a sensitive area. And it has to be accepted that it's the employee's call, and that it's inappropriate for the manager to pressurise someone who is ill into working.

What is important for the manager, before any occasion of sickness, is to ensure that any work done by, or information normally held by, a remote worker is available on the network and transferable to colleagues who may have to cover.

Stress and/or depression brought about through feelings of isolation is an identified problem with people who spend most of the time working on their own. Managers of staff who work mostly from home (or elsewhere on their own) need to be aware that this can be an issue, and ensure that good contact is kept up. Falling behind with work, poor concentration, inability to make decisions, gradually slipping out of contact - these are the kind of tell-tale signs that might indicate a problem.

There is of course also a statutory requirement to make sure health and safety regulations are followed. This applies as much to remote work locations as the one in the base office. (See our article on Taking Health & Safety seriously in Teleworking)

Career progression

There's a common fear that "out of sight" means "out of mind". For e-workers, especially if they're in a minority, this is a big issue. In fact it's true for all kinds of flexible work. Part-timers rarely hit the top levels of management. The only sort of flexible hours than tend to impress senior managers are those which go way beyond 40 hours per week.

Unless you're in the long hours culture and seen to be ever-present, in many firms the chances of promotion are slim.

So extra care needs to be taken to see that location-independent workers get equal rights to training and promotion opportunities - or else their prospects of moving up the ladder may become more remote than their location.

Full-time or part-time?

Clearly, in most of these instances, the amount of time that staff spend out of the office is a key factor in determining e-management activities. As most "e-workers" still spend the majority of their working week in the office, the e-manager has to combine a range of old and new skills.

But, in essence, being an effective e-manager involves

  • keeping up the communications, through a variety of mechanisms

  • ensuring all the technologies and processes  make this communication work seamlessly

  • using big helpings of common sense to build the staff-management relationships, both online and offline.

 

In many organisations an immense amount of effort goes into introducing new ways of working. But the beginning is only the beginning. Management expertise is needed to ensure that new work practices deliver the benefits.

In this article, we outline the kinds of skills and knowledge that managers will need when "e-work" practices are introduced.

 

 

 

"Managing remotely means being in closer touch with staff than ever"

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

"For the e-manager, lack of direct verbal communication spells disaster"

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

"Being an effective e-manager involves using big helpings of common sense to build the staff-management relationships, both online and offline"

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