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Leadership Development > Talent Management

Managing People You Can’t See: A Cheat Sheet

“You already possess the skills needed to manage people you can’t see. I’m just going to wake them up for you,” Kyra Cavanaugh told the audience of human resources, hiring and recruiting professionals last week to open her SHRM 2011 session, Managing People You Can’t See.

Those “people you can’t see” to which Cavanaugh, President of workplace solutions firm Life Meets Work, Inc., was referring are the employees who work remotely, a part of the workforce that is increasing day by day.

Recognizing the need to address the challenges that come with either managing people who work remotely or working remotely oneself, Cavanaugh led a highly interactive – and highly engaging – session in which she provided eight tips for managing and working with remote teams.

Eight Tips for Managing a Remote Workforce

  1. Identify and Acknowledge Discomfort.Regardless of your management style, you’re bound to feel a level of discomfort when managing people you can’t see. The solution? “We have to arm ourselves with knowledge and information to get more comfortable.” Of course, this requires some introspection. Consider your management style. (Do you tend to be more trusting or more controlling as a manager?) Then identify the challenges to that style, and finally, explore the various skills or tactics you can you use to fill the gaps.
  2. Evaluate Remote Work Requests Objectively. Remote work requests should be handled like any other business decision, says Cavanaugh. “It’s not about ‘Is this a good enough reason?’ It’s about ‘What does the business need?’” The following factors should come into play:
    1. Needs of business
    2. Nature of position
    3. Individual work style
    4. Department restrictions/limitations
    5. Individual performance
  3. Say either “Yes, and…’ or “No, and…”Always give a reason for your decision. If you say no, explain why, especially if it has to do with the individual’s work style or performance (Cavanaugh suggests saying something along the lines of “I’m not comfortable with this for these reasons, but if you improve in these areas, we can revisit this in a few months.”)On the other hand, if you say yes, make sure you explain any concerns you have going into it, and establish ground rules (e.g. “If we find in a few months that business needs aren’t being met, we may have to revisit this decision.”).
  4. Agree Upon and Document Team Values.  Create a “Virtual Teams Agreement,” a physical document – to be reviewed every six months – outlining a certain set of behaviors that everyone on the team helps create and agrees on.For example, the agreement should take into account all the ways your team interacts (e.g. “How often do we need to respond to emails? Check voicemails? Have meetings where everyone is physically present? Are conference calls mandatory? What’s optional?”) and ways to hold each other accountable.A VTA will not only create mutual understanding over expectations, but it will also “eliminate any feelings of jealousy over ‘why does she get to work remotely and I can’t?’” Cavanaugh says.
  5. Harness Technology. From project management software to CRM tools, to micro-blogging sites (like Twitter and Yammer), to Wiki’s, there are so many resources today that enable remote teams to work together–it’s just a matter of picking your poison (so to speak).“Every team has preference over which technologies they like.  Have that conversation with your team” to find out their preferences – and don’t be afraid to mix it up.
  6. Set Goals and Track Performance. Make sure you clearly communicate deadlines and projects. Everyone should know who is responsible for completing which part of the project when in order to “ensure everyone’s on same page.”One thing Cavanaugh suggests is utilizing is flash reports, short reports employees submit each week (or maybe or even every day) outlining three pieces of information: What they accomplished this week, what obstacles they encountered, and what they’ll do next week. Flash reports not only set expectations, but they hold people accountable for finishing their goals.
  7. Communicate Deliberately. “When we can’t see each other, we can’t read body language,” Cavanaugh says, and that can be dangerous, because body language tells us so much. We do not always know when someone is being serious or sarcastic in an email…but we also tend not to ask.  For that reason “we have to have those conversations we do not want to have.”
  8. Build a Strong, Cohesive Team. “People want to be participating in something bigger than themselves,” Cavanaugh says. For this reason, it’s important to build a sense of community by promoting teamwork. Team building among remote teams is certainly not an easy task, but it’s not an impossible one, either. It just requires a little innovation.For example, Cavanaugh suggests building a PowerPoint, wherein each person has a section in which they can talk about anything they want – from recent accomplishments to vacation plans.

Do you work with remote teams? What management tips have you found work for you?

Mary Lorenz

About Mary Lorenz

Mary is a copywriter for CareerBuilder, specializing in B2B marketing and corporate recruiting best practices and social media. In addition to creating copy for corporate advertising and marketing campaigns, she researches and writes about employee attraction, engagement and retention. Whenever possible, she makes references to pop culture. Sometimes, those references are even relevant. A New Orleans native, Mary now lives in Chicago, right down the street from the best sushi place in the city. It's awesome.
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