Managing and Engaging Remote Employees
How do you maintain good management relationships with your direct reports when there are simply too many of them, they work in remote locations or different time zones, or they have different schedules?
If you’re a manager who often thinks, “I have too many people to manage,” do a reality check: Do you really have 13 or 30 people who directly report to you? Or do you have a “chain of command” – that is, employees who are actually managers, supervisors or team leaders who are supposed to be managing some of the other employees in your group?
If you have a chain of command, use it effectively. Make a habit of talking to these supervisors or team leaders every day, and focus intensely on helping them play the role you need them to play. Teach them how to manage on an ongoing basis, and manage how they manage every step of the way. Just as you are working hard to be a strong manager, they need to do the same.
If you don’t have a chain of command, maybe you should establish one. There is no magic number for how many direct reports a single manager can handle. But surely there is a limit. Developing new leaders, even informally, will help you extend your reach: You can use them as temporary project managers and deputize them when you are not available. But don’t give anyone management responsibilities of any kind – formal or informal – unless you are prepared to focus on that leader intensely and personally manage their management practices very closely.
No matter how many people you are responsible for managing, you will have to make choices every day about how you are going to use your dedicated management time. Concentrate on four or five people every day. Some employees will need more time than others. But don’t just talk to the winners and the losers. Talk to everybody in between.
What about managing employees are working on the other side of the planet in an entirely different time zone? Even if they are just across town, they might be working a different schedule from you. What do you do?
In all of these cases, it’s important to establish a protocol with the remote employee for maintaining a well-functioning, ongoing, one-on-one dialogue:
- Keep each other informed about when you’ll both be at a central location, such as the organization’s headquarters, so you can schedule in-person one-on-one time.
- Schedule occasional in-person meetings when it is convenient for you to visit the remote employee or when it is convenient for them to visit you.
- If you have even simple video phone capability, consider meeting sometimes via video phone.
- In the absence of in-person meetings and two-way web-cams, make good use of regular telephone and electronic communication. Too often, managers of remotes slip into “management by interruption” and “call me when you need me.” As a result, their communication becomes increasingly disorganized, incomplete and random. Until, of course, something goes wrong, and then they find themselves managing by “firefighting.”
- Schedule regular one-on-one telephone calls, and never miss them.
- Prepare in advance of your one-on-ones and ask the remote to prepare, too. It is often a good idea to ask them to prepare a written recap of highlights and key issues of the time since your last one-on-one call, as well as open questions to discuss. Also, the remote should send any work in progress that is going to be discussed for your review in advance.
- Immediately following each call, ask the remote to send you an email recapping what you both agreed on in your conversation: the actions they are expected to take, the steps they will follow and the timeline, as well as the date and time of your next scheduled phone call. Ask the remote to prepare in advance and send any documents for review prior to the next meeting.
Remember, electronic communication has a built-in advantage: When you and your direct reports are communicating electronically, you are creating a paper (or electronic) trail. Save those emails, and you’ll have record of your ongoing dialogue. If the emails are organized and thorough, the remote employee might be able to even print them out and use them as checklists or as the basis for crafting work plans, schedules, to-do lists and other tools to help guide their work. You can use that paper trail as part of your ongoing tracking and documentation of the employee’s performance.
Bruce Tulgan is the founder and CEO of RainmakerThinking, Inc., a management research and training firm, as well as RainmakerThinking.Training, an online training company. He is the best-selling author of numerous books, including “Not Everyone Gets a Trophy” (revised & updated, 2016), “Bridging the Soft Skills Gap” (2015), “The 27 Challenges Managers Face” (2014) and “It’s Okay to be the Boss” (revised & updated, 2014).