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
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
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
maintain a high level of
contact - encouraging a two-way (and colleague-to-colleague) flow of
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
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
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
The expectation to have key
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.
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
how to use online collaborative
how and where on the system to
file documents (rather than to attach every draft to an email and copy it
the type and level of social communication
when it's best to use the
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 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
Sometimes this may be from the
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
Health and psychological
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
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
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)
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