MANAGEMENT UPDATE – WATCH YOUR DISTANCE

Kelley Holland takes a look at some of the challenges executives have to face with long distance management
Maybe a recent episode of Project Runway was especially good, or the football game went into overtime and ended on an amazing play. Maybe you only have fresh gossip to share. Whatever the reason, you and your colleagues find yourselves standing around talking animatedly in the coffee room when your manager walks by.

The manager may say that nothing and may not even glance your way. But afterwards, the conversation dies down quickly and you all head back to your desks.

Does it sound familiar? That walk-by is a little technique that many managers use to make sure that employees are staying engaged during the work day. And so are those peeks around the office door in the morning, for example, to offer a quick comment, or those email messages around 6 p.m. with questions about the next morning’s meeting.

Elementary school teachers often use similar techniques, surprising a chatty student with questions about the discussion at hand or standing close behind a child who cannot stay focused on a lesson.

But when managers lead far-flung groups of employees, management-bykeeping-tabs becomes impractical at best. Monitoring the coming and going of several employees in different places can consume entire days and, in any case, cell phones make it easy for people to conceal where they are.

Successful long distance managers learn to stop treating their reports like wayward second-graders, instead setting clear expectations and then focusing on the results. In that kind of arrangement, it makes no difference if an employee works from 6 to 9 a.m. and then goes to the gym for two hours, as long as he or she still produces a wellexecuted sales memo on time.

When managing from afar succeeds, “there is a totally different level of trust between the manager and the employee,” said Carol Sladek, Manager of the work-life consulting group at Hewitt Associates. The manager believes that the employee is responsible enough to get the job done, she said, and assumes that the person “is not at home in front of the TV with their bunny slippers on.”

Such a change in management style can be hard on managers who are accustomed to knowing the whereabouts of their employees and even the most minor ups and downs of their work. When companies come to Hewitt for advice on setting up telecommuting programmes, Sladek said, they are sometimes surprised at the cultural shifts they need to make.

Still, more and more managers are being asked to manage faraway employees. Telecommuting becomes more common every year. Sometimes managers themselves telecommute, leading a team at the office from another location. And even when both manager and employees are at their offices, those sites can be far apart if the company’s business extends across regions or even countries. Once a manager has learned not to monitor the entry and signing off of a distantly-located staff too closely, other challenges await. Regular communication, for instance, is at least as important as it is in the office, when chance encounters are easier.

Virtual meetings involving several people can be tricky to arrange, particularly when employees are in different time zones. Some managers wind up talking late at night to em ployees in Asia and early in the morning to those in Europe.

At the same time, other elements of management become easier when a long distance is involved. If a manager and his report have set clear expecta tions upfront, a performance review can be much more straightforward. And when employees telecom mute, they are often so pleased with the arrangement that they work harder and stay in their jobs longer, according to several human resources experts. Reduc ing turnover saves companies mon ey and lightens the burden on managers to keep recruiting and training new employees.

Best Buy is one company that is taking long-distance management to a new level, with a project called Results-Only Work Environment, or ROWE. Employees in participating departments are allowed to work virtually anywhere and anytime, as long as they successfully complete their assignments on time.

If employees can produce a viable sales plan in 25 hours, rather than the 40 that their manager expected, then they have 15 hours more free time than they expected. If they can work effectively from a fly-fishing trip, that is all right, too. (Hourly employees have to work for a fixed number of hours, but they can choose those hours.) Long-distance work arrangements are not suited to all jobs. Although Hewlett-Packard was a pioneer in telecommuting, Randall D. Mott, the Chief Information Officer, is consolidating many data centres, and he has said that he wants more information technology workers in the office to increase brainstorming and teamwork.

Still, plenty of other workers at the company continue to telecommute, said Ed Woodward, a spokesman. He should know: for the last three or four years, he said, he has been working from Houston, 1,600 miles from the company’s ¦ headquarters in Palo Alto, Calif. Courtesy: New York Times Syndicate
Maybe a recent episode of Project Runway was especially good, or the football game went into overtime and ended on an amazing play. Maybe you only have fresh gossip to share. What- ever the reason, you and your col- leagues find yourselves standing around talking animatedly in the cof- fee room when your manager walks by. The manager may say that nothing and may not even glance your way. But afterwards, the conversation dies down quickly and you all head back to your desks. Does it sound familiar? That walk-by is a little technique that many man- agers use to make sure that employees are staying engaged during the work day. And so are those peeks around the office door in the morning, for example, to offer a quick comment, or those e- mail messages around 6 p.m. with ques- tions about the next morning’s meeting. Elementary school teachers often use similar techniques, surprising a chatty student with questions about the discussion at hand or standing close behind a child who cannot stay focused on a lesson. But when managers lead far-flung groups of employees, management-by- keeping-tabs becomes impractical at best. Monitoring the coming and go- ing of several employees in different places can consume entire days and, in any case, cell phones make it easy for people to conceal where they are. Successful long distance managers learn to stop treating their reports like wayward second-graders, instead set- ting clear expectations and then focus- ing on the results. In that kind of arrangement, it makes no difference if an employee works from 6 to 9 a.m. and then goes to the gym for two hours, as long as he or she still produces a well- executed sales memo on time. When managing from afar succeeds, “there is a totally different level of trust between the manager and the employee,” said Carol Sladek, Manager of the work-life consulting group at Hewitt Associates. The manager be- lieves that the employee is responsible enough to get the job done, she said, and assumes that the person “is not at home in front of the TV with their bunny slippers on.” Such a change in management style can be hard on managers who are ac- customed to knowing the whereabouts of their employees and even the most minor ups and downs of their work. When companies come to Hewitt for advice on setting up telecommuting programmes, Sladek said, they are sometimes surprised at the cultural shifts they need to make. Still, more and more managers are being asked to manage faraway em- ployees. Telecommuting becomes more common every year. Sometimes man- agers themselves telecommute, leading a team at the office from another loca- tion. And even when both manager and employees are at their offices, those sites can be far apart if the company’s business extends across regions or even countries. Once a manager has learned not to monitor the entry and signing off of a distantly-located staff too closely, other challenges await. Regular com- munication, for instance, is at least as important as it is in the office, when chance encounters are easier. Virtual meetings involving several people can be tricky to arrange, par- ticularly when employees are in dif- ferent time zones. Some managers wind up talking late at night to em- ployees in Asia and early in the morn- ing to those in Europe. At the same time, other elements of management become easier when a long distance is involved. If a manager and his report have set clear expecta- tions upfront, a performance review can be much more straightforward. And when employees telecom- mute, they are often so pleased with the arrangement that they work harder and stay in their jobs longer, according to several human resources experts. Reduc- ing turnover saves companies mon- ey and lightens the burden on man- agers to keep recruiting and train- ing new employees. Best Buy is one company that is taking long-distance management to a new level, with a project called Results-Only Work Environment, or ROWE. Employees in participating de- partments are allowed to work virtual- ly anywhere and anytime, as long as they successfully complete their as- signments on time. If employees can produce a viable sales plan in 25 hours, rather than the 40 that their manager expected, then they have 15 hours more free time than they expected. If they can work effectively from a fly-fishing trip, that is all right, too. (Hourly employees have to work for a fixed number of hours, but they can choose those hours.) Long-distance work arrangements are not suited to all jobs. Although Hewlett-Packard was a pioneer in telecommuting, Randall D. Mott, the Chief Information Officer, is consolidating many data centres, and he has said that he wants more information technology workers in the office to increase brainstorming and teamwork. Still, plenty of other workers at the company continue to telecommute, said Ed Woodward, a spokesman. He should know: for the last three or four years, he said, he has been working from Hous- ton, 1,600 miles from the company’s ¦ headquarters in Palo Alto,