Managing Employees from a Distance Becoming Business Reality

By SHRM Online staff Feb 20, 2009

As signs of an economic turnaround remain elusive, business leaders are becoming more focused on increasing employee productivity, according to a report released January 2009 by The Conference Board.

With business operations growing increasingly global, maintaining dispersed employees and identifying key tools for optimizing their efficiency and engagement become all the more vital to business success. To make managing an employee at a site other than one’s own a mutually rewarding experience, several factors must be taken into consideration, according to the report titled Meeting the Challenges of a Dispersed Workforce: Managing Across Language, Culture, Time and Location.

“The issue of whether or not to allow employees to work at a distance is no longer a cost benefit issue—it is simply the reality of doing business,” said Linda Barrington, research director and labor economist, The Conference Board, in a statement accompanying the report release. “And effective management of dispersed employees is a key to success in that new reality.”

The Conference Board research working group on managing a distant workforce examined the issue of managing distant workers during meetings and through interviews, surveys and focus groups of relevant high-performing, dispersed work teams. The goal of the research working group was to identify effective ways to address the organizational, managerial and individual challenges of managing distance employees.

In addition to survey responses, the report includes case studies from MetLife, Qualcomm and Lincoln Financial.

Effective Manager-Employee Work Teams Are Key

Major findings of this study include:

  • More than 60 percent of the respondents surveyed agreed that managing same-site employees is easier than managing distance employees.
  • Nearly 80 percent of the respondents believe that the extra costs of enabling employees to work at a distance do pay off.

Managers’ perceptions of the job they’re doing differs from that of distance employees; 53 percent of managers surveyed reported spending more than an hour a week developing working relationships with distance employees, whereas only 18 percent of employees believed that their managers spent that much time with them.

Five practices, however, were found to be shared among effective distance teams:

  • In-person meetings.
  • Clear agreements on accessibility.
  • Good use of group software.
  • Adequate company support.
  • Clearly defined roles for team members.

Study author Pete Linkow wrote: “Great distance managers must first and foremost be inclusive, empowering, supportive and trustworthy. Then they must master the fundamentals of management, like setting goals, evaluating, giving feedback and coaching. Finally, they must be superb at three competencies: cultivating relationships, focusing on outcomes and developing employees.”

Although managers and employees disagree about how much time is spent on developing relationships, they both agree that it is vital. Of managers and employees surveyed, about 90 percent and 70 percent, respectively, said the two most effective communication tools for building distance relationships were the telephone and face-to-face meetings.

In addition to identifying the challenges presented, the group identified key skills for managers and employees that can help maximize productivity and lead to effective manager-employee teams. At the heart of managing distance employees well is proper communication and employee engagement in order to create a productive work environment. Effective distance employees were identified as those who know how to execute, use technology and collaborate.

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