Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Out of sight, but not out of mind

Strategies needed when dealing with off-site employees

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While we often say vacations should be a time when we are "out of sight and out of mind," the same is not true for employees dispersed to work at various off-site locations, working remotely from a home office and/or working mainly from a vehicle. Yet, the syndrome of dispersed workers or those with alternative work schedules is one of the most challenging workplace issues for supervisors and managers as well as employees themselves. From the management point of view, the issue is just how do you keep track of where everyone is, what these employees are working on and what is being accomplished? Such is the dilemma of the new age manager.

Dispersed employees on the other hand, also experience their own challenges. In fact, it can be downright lonely working in isolation from a manager and other colleagues. We often hear complaints from employees about not feeling part of a team and missing out on the fun activities and communication that occurs in a vibrant workplace. For some reason, an email notice isn't quite the same as face-to-face communication when birthday or birth announcements are made.

We know employees and supervisors alike experience challenges when trying to develop the type of "long distance" rapport that facilitates good working relationships and email messages are often misinterpreted. We also often hear about a lack of leadership direction and a lack of follow up resulting in dispersed employees feeling they are, indeed, "out of sight and out of mind."

At the same time, not every employee is suited to working alone in a dispersed off-site location. Those who struggle often do not have the personal discipline to stay focused and to achieve goals and objectives independently. As a result, timelines are missed and projects get waylaid.

Yet, with the growth of the internet, social media and new communication tools, managers have the opportunity and tools available to combine a variety of communication strategies for staying in touch with and overseeing the work of dispersed employees. However, planning for communication shouldn't be left until employees are assigned to an off-site location. Managers must set the stage for effectively managing the entire workforce right from the beginning.

So, where can the manager start? The following guidelines will help to assure an effective workforce strategy for managing an off-site workforce.

Set the stage: Review the nature of the jobs being considered for off-site work and be sure your employees can effectively complete the assigned tasks when working in this manner. Next, ensure off-site employees will have all the resources needed for their job and that all policies and procedures related to this work arrangement are in place. This includes workspace, information technology access, other equipment and tools and access to technology assistance when required. Next, ensure you have the right organizational structure to support an off-site worker operational framework.

Hire the right people: Individuals who work best on their own are very goal-oriented achievers who work well within general guidelines and can structure their own work day. They demonstrate independence and autonomy and will speak up when they need help. Utilize communication and work-style assessments to determine and confirm their ability to work in isolation and be sure to check references of former employers who offered the same work scenario.

Assign the right manager: Not everyone is suited to managing off-site workers as it certainly requires a completely different operating philosophy. In this situation, trust is even more important and must be worked on right from the start. Managers who are right for the job are good communicators with a knack for building teams, who can quickly build trust and show enthusiasm and support for their management responsibilities.

Set specific goals: Work with employees to set specific goals, objectives, timelines and the means to check in at various milestones. Communicate your expectations. Arrange for frequent reporting in a manner that still gives the employee the sense of independence rather than a perception of micromanaging.

Develop routines: Consistent communication and contact helps to create a sense of belonging and teamwork. Off-site workers know they are valued and that contact with them is important. Be sure to touch your off-site employees through as many communication channels as possible and as consistently as possible. Schedule a weekly meeting time and be sure to keep it.

Be available: Since it's so easy to miscommunicate, it's important to make yourself available to discuss issues as they arise. If you cannot be available, ensure there is a backup. Respond to messages quickly even if the response is that you'll reply more fully at a later time. Employees need to know managers are there for them.

Communicate around milestones: Use the milestones as an opportunity for direct communication in order to provide feedback and to stay connected with the employee. Arrange a face-to-face meeting where possible and cost effective.

Reward and recognize: Take time to recognize employee efforts more frequently than if you were working side by side. Send a quick note or make a quick telephone call. If you have a staff newsletter, use it to introduce staff accompanied by photos so that colleagues can get a visual of those they work with remotely.

Take advantage of technology: Technology advances now allow us to hold group meetings through emerging collaboration software, networking and remote-access technology, many of which are accompanied by video capability. This is an ideal and inexpensive way to get people together. Use it frequently to get your team together.

Plan periodic group meetings: Plan to hold bi-annual and/or quarterly group meetings as a means of sharing information and building team spirit. Link these meetings up with team training, group sharing, product knowledge and/or new service announcements. Be sure to hold special event gatherings such as a staff party during the holiday season.

Measure task/project performance: Since individuals are not within arm's reach, supervisors/managers must ensure they establish accurate and well-defined key-performance measures. This means focusing on elements such as project deadlines, content, accuracy, completeness, collaboration and customer satisfaction.

Manage your own discomfort: While some managers start out thinking overseeing off-site workers will not be a challenge, they often find old biases unexpectedly creep to the top of their minds. Learn to recognize your uncomfortable feelings, ask yourself why you're feeling that way and resolve it. Avoid making assumptions and becoming concerned when the employee's telephone is busy. Recognize the biases and old philosophies and rethink your approach.

Telecommuters, home-based workers and/or those who travel a great deal need special ongoing personal attention in order to develop a strong sense of collaboration and teamwork. This requires strong organizational supports and a supervisory style that ensures concrete goals, objectives and task completion remains the basis for employee performance rather than the old fashioned, "bums in the seat" approach.

Barbara J. Bowes, FCHRP, CMC, CCP, M.Ed is president of Legacy Bowes Group. She can be reached at barb@legacybowes.com

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 10, 2013 H1

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