Vol. 49, No. 4
When managing employees in far-off locations, keep three ingredients: knowledge, trust and connectedness.
Ensuring that your employees consistently meet expectations of performance, attendance and workplace conduct is never easy. However, when separated geographically from your employees by hundreds or even thousands of miles, the degree of management difficulty soars.
Beginning with hypothetical experiences of ABC Inc., headquartered in Richmond, Va. (all taken from actual situations), this article explores what managers can do to meet the challenges of supervising employees in distant locations.
At ABC’s corporate headquarters, the executive staff mulled over recent events at five small facilities around the country:
- Minneapolis. A production facility had been experiencing high turnover, absenteeism and discontent. A survey conducted by an outside consultant revealed a widespread feeling that the company did not care about the employees and probably would sell the facility at the first opportunity. The Richmond executive who oversaw this facility earned the nickname of “Terminator” due to his practice of visiting only to investigate allegations of wrongdoing or conduct terminations, and staying only long enough to get the dirty work done.
- Fayetteville, Ark. Unbeknownst to senior management, a local salesman had been offering discounts, financing and other terms of sale to customers in violation of company policy. Now that the problem had been discovered, both the customers (who knew only the salesman and no one else at the company) and the salesman are threatening to walk, which would cost the company a valuable chunk of business.
- Cheyenne, Wyo. A personality conflict developed between two-thirds of a three-person service center. The home office asked the third person to intercede with her co-workers. After she attempted to do so without success, she complained to the home office that she lacked the authority, training or background to handle such a difficult assignment. The situation degenerated to the point that all three employees quit, leaving the company with a service-less service center.
- Fargo, N.D. The corporate manager did not want to make the long trip to fire a local support technician. She reasoned that she had already invested too much time and energy in this failed employee. The support tech took as towering insults the over-the-phone firing and instruction that someone from FedEx would pick up company property in his possession. On his way out, he deleted several critical computer files, creating a giant, costly mess.
- Buffalo, N.Y. During a telephone interview, the applicant for a local supervisor position sounded like a people person. However, after reports of verbal and even physical abuse made their way back to the corporate office, senior staff realized that their remote hiring decision had been a catastrophic mistake. They now had an office in chaos with plaintiffs’ lawyers not far away.
Source of Trouble
Why do these problems happen? If you are a manager working in the corporate office with responsibility for remote employees or locations, what should you do in these situations?
As the experience of ABC Inc. illustrates, when problems go wrong between home office and remote site, it usually has to do with three missing ingredients: knowledge or information, trust and a sense of connectedness.
In the examples above, the home office does not know what is going on in the field. It is unaware of misunderstandings. It does not know of intensifying problems. Employees at the remote sites likewise lack information. They are unaware of what is expected of them and what is truly important. Both sides suffer from a lack of feedback.
The missing first ingredient leads directly to the absence of the second and third. Unhealthy speculation fills in the knowledge gap, creating mistrust on both sides and eroding any sense of connectedness. The notion that employees at the home office and at remote locations are part of the same team in pursuit of the same objectives seems increasingly far-fetched. As a result, remote sites become breeding grounds for waste, inefficiency, disloyalty, misconduct and legal claims.
In these five locations of ABC Inc., the absence of the three ingredients is apparent. Not knowing where their facility stood in the corporate hierarchy, Minneapolis employees speculated and drew the most negative conclusions. A lack of connectedness in Fayetteville and Cheyenne led, in the first instance, to a salesman focusing entirely on his own interests at the expense of the company’s and, in the second, to management’s inability to head off a personnel problem before it reached the crisis state. In Fargo, a lack of connectedness due to a manager’s unwillingness to travel turned a difficult employment action into a disastrous one. And in Buffalo, the lack of information and connectedness with the local office led to a poor hiring decision, which in turn led to a breakdown in trust between the local office and company headquarters.
Steps to Take
Managers can take several steps to avoid a breakdown in information, trust and connectedness and to help ensure that, regardless of geographic distance, all employees remain aligned with common expectations and objectives.
- Regular communication. Managers and HR professionals contacted for this story underscored the necessity of continual communication “even when nothing is going on,” one noted.
Don’t let problems serve as the only triggers for communication. Maintain a regular practice of staying in touch with remote offices or employees. Suggestions include having at least one e-mail exchange a day and at least one telephone discussion a week. One manager has employees do weekly one-page reports in which they describe what they accomplished the past week, the state of morale at their location, and their ideas for improvement.
- Go to gemba. Wes Schotten, senior consultant with the Hayes Group International in El Paso, Texas, preaches the concept of “going to gemba.” As he explains, “gemba” is a Japanese word meaning “scene of the accident or crime.” However, as construed by Japanese management, it refers to going to the heart of the matter on a regular basis to observe first-hand what is important. More Americanized managers might employ the acronym MBWA (Management by Walking Around, a concept introduced by management guru Tom Peters). Make it a practice to get away from the home office and go where remote offices, facilities and employees are.
Conduct these visits even when there appears to be no problems to solve. Avoid the “Terminator” label given the ABC Inc. executive by his Minneapolis employees. Be there for positive events such as employee awards, promotions, opening of new departments, etc. During these visits, include meetings with important customers to avoid the problem experienced at ABC’s Fayetteville operation. While you’re there, make a point of being visible. Don’t slip past the receptionist and spend your time holed up in the local manager’s office.
Bear in mind, as one executive observes, it is often when things are going good and when numbers are up that the seeds for future trouble are sown. Excessive or inappropriate hiring, personnel issues or the need for product or service innovations often get overlooked. Therefore, take inventory even when everything appears to be going well.
- Periodic audits. Paula Gabrault, a consultant with Reintjes Services in Kansas City, Mo., urges managers responsible for remote sites periodically to audit compliance with company policy and applicable employment laws. Develop a checklist. Some of the items on it can be done by or with HR’s help, such as whether I-9s are being properly processed for new hires or whether employees are being lawfully classified as exempt or non-exempt. Other items on which the manager should focus include checking whether employees at remote sites have received and understand important company policies such as internal complaint reporting options to the home office or company policy regarding handling customer accounts—in contrast to ABC’s experiences in Fayetteville. Periodically asking—and then answering—such questions will go a long way to avoiding trouble.
- Technology. In today’s technological times, you can stay connected with remote employees in a variety of ways. These include web conferencing, video conferencing and well-developed intranet sites. Your IT department (or, if you don’t have one, a consultant) should explore what is available and what will work best. For example, one employer conducts regularly scheduled webcasts in which the CEO and other senior executives simultaneously address dozens and sometimes even hundreds of employees in 18 locations throughout the United States.
Available technology also includes sophisticated monitoring devices. These can provide remote checking of e-mail, web sites and programs that employees access, when employees log in and out of their computers and even their exact key strokes.
However, just because the technology exists doesn’t mean you should use it. A cost-benefit analysis should be conducted, including factoring in time, price, effect on morale, potential legal issues involving privacy rights and the qualifications of those who will do the monitoring. Some employers have discovered to their dismay that employees in the IT department who were supposed to be guarding against employees’ accessing illicit material became consumers instead.
- Training. Training remote employees continues to be a struggle. However, several tools help. A plethora of video and computer-based training products exist or can be customized. Intranet sites can be designed to include interactive training modules that teach employees the rules, expectations and job-relevant skills. Such tools should not, however, entirely supplant live training. Face-to-face sessions tend to have a more powerful impact. They also help reinforce the connectedness ingredient with home office and remote location.
In addition to having managers, HR representatives and others make periodic visits to conduct training sessions, employees can be brought to the home office or to regional gatherings for training and peer reinforcement. Although this can get expensive, it is an investment in the three ingredients of knowledge, trust and connectedness. These sessions also can go a long way to increase the likelihood of early reporting of problems as opposed to letting them fester and grow as repeatedly experienced at ABC Inc.
- Employee Selection. Cherie Aldana, vice president of HR at PDI Inc. in Upper Saddle River, N.J., stresses the importance of making good remote hiring decisions, especially of the person who will be reporting to you at the home office. Some employees are self-starters with strong internal motivation and good organizational and communication skills. Others, however, need the physical presence and structure of a tightly organized management system.
The employee selection process for remote sites should therefore be tailored to assessing in which category the applicant fits. In the interview process, ask applicants to describe specific experiences that demonstrate their ability to show initiative and thrive in relatively free or lightly structured environments. The background checking process should seek to verify such experiences.
For supervisory positions at remote sites or facilities, both the selection and orientation process should not only emphasize the self-starter factor but the ability of the local supervisor to support the company’s mission, values and goals—and willingness to make sure that the other employees at the remote location do the same. Avoid duplicating ABC’s hiring mistake in Buffalo; either go to the remote location or have the final applicants come to yours.
Put Away the Remote
As many managers and HR professionals have attested, remote managing can be done successfully. Too often, however, we observe, experience or even read about the kinds of problems experienced by ABC Inc., yet don’t take action to identify and resolve issues within our control. Our inaction or desire to leave corrective action up to others makes us part of the problem and helps prevent constructive change.
So what’s the solution? Get up from the couch, stretch your legs, put away the remote and begin moving toward the source of the image you are viewing.
Jathan Janove is a partner in Janove Baar Associates LC, a Salt Lake City-based employment law firm, and is a member of the Management Labor and Employment Roundtable and Worklaw Network. He defends employers in litigation and helps prevent workplace claims through training, consulting and development of HR policies and practices. He is currently publishing a book with SHRM based on his training program “The Seven Deadly Sins of Mismanagement.”