Management Tools

By Marjorie Derven Mar 1, 2007
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HR Magazine, March 2007 The Remote Connection

Leading others from a distance requires set expectations, trust and unique methods of evaluation.

The tenuous nature of any manager-employee relationship becomes even more complex when distance is added to the equation. Remote leaders are becoming common due to factors such as increased globalization, mergers and acquisitions, a desire to save costs on commercial real estate, improved technology, and the desire for employees to strike a work/life balance.

Remote arrangements can benefit both the company and the employee—when they work well. But, the manager-employee relationship requires careful up-front planning, agreed-to expectations for both parties and steps to avert potential crises before they occur.

Being separated by geography can add a host of challenges to leaders, including:

  • Assessing the needs of the employee. How can remote leaders ensure that they are developing employees and obtaining peak performance?
  • Keeping in touch. How best to stay connected despite a geographic divide?
  • Evaluating performance. How can employee performance be assessed when there is reduced access and visibility?
  • Using technology appropriately. How can the tools be maximized?
  • Sharing organizational knowledge. How can leaders ensure that employees stay “plugged in”?
  • Collecting best practices. How can organizational learning be promoted when people are separated?

Failure to address these and other challenges produces poor results for the manager, employee and organization.

Clarify Expectations

Clear goals are important in every reporting structure, but they become paramount in a virtual relationship. By definition, there are limited opportunities for interaction, so clear expectations and goals help the leader assess performance and help remote employees know where to focus efforts and build self-reliance.

“Job No. 1 is to make sure that people know you, trust you and understand where you’re going,” says Jeffery S. Schippmann, vice president of global talent management at Hess Corp., an oil and gas company in New York. He documents relationships as well as accountabilities. “I like to use a visual map that outlines accountabilities and lists their decision-making authority,” he explains. Schippmann also applies the SMART (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, Time-bound) objectives for each person.

Underscoring the importance of establishing clear expectations in remote working relationships is the example of Best Buy, which recently implemented ROWE, for “results only work environment,” an experiment designed to allow workers to get their work done wherever and whenever they want, as long as they meet agreed-to results. Initial data, reported in Business Week, indicate that this is a successful experiment: Productivity is up 35 percent, and turnover is down dramatically.

As the manager, you need to model the behavior and values that you expect. With limited opportunities for interaction, the distance leader’s actions—good and bad—can easily become magnified. Therefore, following through on commitments is essential, as is demonstrating respect.

Respect can be demonstrated in many ways, including valuing remote employees’ time, showing that their ideas and contributions are valued, and communicating consistency in words and deeds. Leaders who treat remote employees as valuable assets will be rewarded with higher performance and productivity and more enjoyable working relationships.

Trust, which is hard to establish and easy to shatter, should be nurtured as a valuable asset. Remote leaders must keep promises and convey that their employees, even though they are not co-located, are very important.

Eliminating the Static

Here are a number of solutions for additional challenges of remote leadership.

Assess the needs of the employee. Create a mental picture that can be used to evaluate each remote employee. This picture must be continually tested and adjusted to make a remote relationship work.

To get started, apply your organization’s own leadership or functional competencies to create a baseline assessment. Look at multiple indicators of performance. “I look at three things: process, activity and outcomes,” says Joseph G. Bonito, former vice president of organizational effectiveness and learning and development at Pfizer Inc. in New York.

Create a process for keeping in touch. While the basics of leading people continue to apply in a remote relationship, limited opportunities for in-person interactions make building a connection more difficult.

“You are missing something—you can’t see expressions and miss the social lubricant of informality,” observes Robert Ryncarz, executive director of organizational learning at Merck & Co., a pharmaceutical company in Whitehouse Station, N.J. Without needed context, inadvertent miscues about meaning and priorities can occur too easily. Stay alert to signs and symptoms of problems. (See “Five Signs of a Faulty Connection”.)

To establish good remote relationships, create explicit working agreements about frequency of contact, mutual expectations and communications preferences. Define the “rules of the road” for remote communications. Will there be a standard time for weekly calls? What kinds of reports are needed?

Although standardizing communications can be helpful, it also can be too restrictive, so flexibility is needed as well. “A weekly call can become a ‘check the box’ activity, so it is important to supplement this. While it is good to have a purpose with your communications, sometimes you need informality to create candor,” explains Ben Paradee, director of continuous development at Pfizer Pharmaceuticals Group.

Micromanaging and being too hands-off are two extremes that distance leaders must guard against. Finding the right balance requires sensitivity to task and people.

Tim Kern, vice president of U.S. sales learning and development at Pfizer Global Pharmaceuticals, sums it up this way: “Remote leadership does not mean absentee leadership.”

Evaluate performance through multiple sources of data. Without the advantage of frequent direct observation, it is essential to solicit information about the quality of work from internal stakeholders, team members or, where relevant, external customers. “You have to get feedback from clients and constituents. You have to dig beneath the surface,” says Bonito. “One thing I have done is to ask others, ‘What are two things this person is doing well, and what are two things that could be done better?’ ”

Other ways to determine performance and to identify opportunities for coaching include asking direct reports to brainstorm, problem-solve with you and engage in joint action planning. Not only is this a great way to uncover important ideas, it also helps to understand the depth of knowledge, thinking processes and capabilities of direct reports.

Use technology appropriately. Technological tools are indispensable and, in fact, make remote leadership possible. In addition to the standard e-mails, voice mails and teleconferencing, using e-rooms, which are like intranet chat rooms, provides a common source of information for team members who are in far-flung locations.

As Sundar Subramaniam, manager of training and development at BASF in Rockaway, N.J., explains, “Technology can level the playing field in terms of providing a common source of information. We create [online] team rooms that build a common platform for status reporting, with tools for communication.” With worldwide geographic dispersion and 80 sites in the United States alone, remote leadership is quite common at this chemical conglomerate.

Issues that are sensitive, complex or likely to be misunderstood, however, are best handled in person. If that is not possible, a telephone call is the best opportunity for dialogue. “We have all the tools, but people long for high-touch [connections], and technology can’t solve this,” says Kern.

Effective remote leaders develop approaches to compensate for the lack of facial cues when they can’t be on-site. Skillful questions are one approach. “I instituted the ‘check-in process,’ which is a brief statement from each person on the [conference] call stating where they are right now in their process or their feelings to focus the group on the issues each is confronting right now,” explains Rocco Cacchiarale, director of leadership development at Avon Products Inc. in New York, describing one way he manages his virtual team.

Effective distance leaders must commit to being accessible when needed. No matter how effective a communicator any remote leader may be, there is no substitute for meeting on-site regularly. “My assumption is that for all HR processes, it is incredibly important to understand people, and without the face-to-face time, there is less of a rich interaction, so it must be built in,” says Ryncarz.

Even with good intentions and a systematic process, things can go wrong, so it’s important to stay alert to signs of trouble and continue to check in.

Share organizational knowledge. Each remote location inevitably establishes its own culture. The distance leader has a responsibility to act as a conduit of organizational culture and knowledge, sharing information about organizational changes (including formal and informal reporting structures, new leadership priorities, etc.) with direct reports that lack local access.

This involves systematically thinking through and providing the information that direct reports in other locations need to know. It also can mean acting as a filter of information when needed, to reduce “organizational noise” and irrelevant distraction.

Share and collect best practices. Leaders need to make sure that best practices from employees at remote locations are captured and shared across the organization. This not only raises the level of knowledge and capability, it is also a wonderful way to enable staff not located at headquarters, for example, to get the visibility that they otherwise might not enjoy.

Benefits of Remote Leadership

Despite the unique challenges that remote leadership entails, there are advantages. For employees, the autonomy of being off-site develops creativity and resourcefulness.

“I learned how to be efficient in my communications, and always be prepared with items I needed to discuss, as I knew there were limited opportunities,” Bonito recalls. “It helped me to be more self-reliant; I built other networks and relationships that would help me get what I needed when I didn’t have access to my manager.”

Subramaniam echoes this point and suggests that what is learned in distant reporting relationships is highly relevant in today’s matrixed environments. “Part of what you have to do to be successful is to tap into other areas of knowledge—you can’t get your work done alone, and, by definition, remote working encourages this skill set.”

In addition, employees who are out in the field can serve as the eyes and ears for leaders in headquarters. “Ultimately, having employees in different locations enables you to have more helpful information and understand how HR initiatives are playing out across the organization,” says Mina Albanese, director of organizational development and training at NRG Energy Inc. in Princeton, N.J.

The successful virtual leader represents a major paradigm shift from the traditional “command-and-control” relic of the past. Arguably, effective distance leadership practices represent next generation requirements for the knowledge economy, regardless of proximity.

What’s more, some suggest that remote leadership may be preferable to being co-located. “I think you are set up for success with this structure because sometimes when you are on-site, it’s too easy to be doing multiple things and get interrupted—it’s quantity vs. quality,” says Kern.

In addition, he continues, “When you are face to face, you have to give undivided attention. I want my employees to leave a meeting with me feeling that they were the most important thing to me during that period of time we had together.”

Because remote leaders must be particularly purposeful in their interactions, they focus on what is important—and this builds meaningful connections.

Marjorie Derven is managing partner with HUDSON Research & Consulting based in Piermont, N.Y. She can be reached at mderven@hudsonrc.com or via the web at www.hudsonrc.com.

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