By Mike Hoban
A funny thing happened on the way to the recent blizzard in the Midwest – many offices were closed but a lot of work got done. Meetings were held; customer issues got resolved; information got shared; orders were placed. How? People working at home with enabling technology. But while the gizmos make telecommuting and distance management increasingly more viable and more effective, it’s the humanware rather than the hardware or software that is the key ingredient in the sauce of success.
Sure, the ubiquitous laptops with web access, smart phones, virtual networks, web cams, and on-line data bases all made it possible to avoid having to risk life and limb to get to the office while the 2011 Snowpocalypse was raging. But as regular telecommuters and distance managers have discovered, creating alternative working arrangements that actually do work also requires self-management and trust. And let’s not forget measurement and accountability. In fact, the gadget stuff is the easy part.
Technology is an enabler for home-based work, but it could also enable chaos, low productivity and an absence of accountability. Think Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Distant or virtual management arrangements by definition lack line-of-sight in a literal way and does require some application of the old principle of “trust but verify.”
Lead and managing from a distance obviously isn’t a recent development. Communicating with and managing others in far off places has been a challenge from the earliest days of far flung empire. In many cases there had to be an act of faith that the subordinate across the country or across the ocean would be performing in a way that carried out the mission of the organization. But technology helps us go beyond that act of faith.
Last week I had a call with a director in a high tech firm who’s housed in Germany and who has direct reports in another German city, as well as in Prague, Beijing and the U.S. and who almost never sees those people face-to-face. Oh, and he himself works from his home office rather than the regional office some 100 kilometers away. We discussed what he does to provide leadership and direction to those direct reports and he identified several solid practices:
- Set very clear performance expectations, business results and behaviors
- Have very solid metrics which measure performance and have those metrics easily accessible by everyone
- Have regular phone calls to review progress, challenges, etc. The director from Germany I talked with has a weekly call lasting an hour with each person
- Listen for and probe for issues and challenges that might manifest themselves through body language in a face-to-face meeting but have to be discerned through voice tone/volume and nuance on the phone. Install video cams if the technology is available to pick up those emotional signals and to also provide for a more human connection.
And of course in addition to the controls, there is the trust that is necessary to ensure the work gets done and the management support is provided. Not every boss is cut out to be a virtual boss and not every employee can be trusted to work at home or from a distance. But it does represent an attractive alternative for many organizations and employees not just as a Plan B for inclement weather, but as a Plan A.