Out of sight should not be out of mind. Nor should out of sight drive you out of your mind. Yet both scenarios are pretty common when it comes to managing today’s virtual workforce.
We’re talking about all those people who you don’t see regularly but are still making big contributions: Employees who work primarily from home, freelancers, contract workers, and outside service providers (such as consultants or trainers). They are an ever-larger proportion of the workforce and today’s managers can’t afford to ignore the realities of managing them.
And why would you want to? Sure, it can drive you crazy to supervise people you can’t see (“What is he doing today?”). It can be tough to give up some of the things you take for granted, like getting a sense of what people are up to just by walking around, and having an impromptu meeting in the break room or elevator. But employees who aren’t mired in day-to-day minutiae and politics are also more likely to see things more objectively. Because they’re not in the box they are always thinking outside it, and they can bring fresh perspective and big ideas to the team.
They may be more productive, too. Have you ever noticed that when you get to work early, stay late or come in on a weekend you get a lot more done? That’s what can happen when you give people room to work on their own. It turns out that the refrigerator and even the TV are less distracting than the normal workplace.
Finally, virtual employees also just make sense, especially in today’s climate. Telecommuting is environmentally and family friendly. As the boss, you can have work done when it needs to get done. You can draw on expertise when you need it, but not pay for it when you don’t. You can become a better manager by looking at things differently and challenging yourself in new ways.
• Focus on results. It really shouldn’t just be about face time for anyone you supervise, but that’s especially true for virtual employees. If they are a freelancer or contract employee you have very little (if any) control over how they do the job. Even if they are a regular employee working off-site you have less control over process. That actually relieves you of worrying about such things and lets you focus on what’s really important: what they are doing. Be explicit about deliverables and hold people accountable for meeting their commitments.
• Look for an entrepreneurial spirit. Although the idea of working in pajamas may appeal to everyone, it doesn’t mean that everyone can do it well. Working virtually in any capacity requires being a self-starter who is effective at managing time and not easily distracted. Take time up front to assess how well people can manage themselves. Ask for specific examples of situations in which they’ve done that before, and what the results were. Although you can’t abdicate all responsibility for managing a virtual employee, you do want someone who will at least meet you halfway.
• Trust people. If you call a virtual employee at home and don’t get an answer you may assume they’re at the beach for the day or watching Oprah. Don’t. People use the restroom, they take breaks, they eat lunch. If they are a freelance employee they have other clients. It doesn’t mean they aren’t working or won’t get the job done. The truth is that you don’t really know what any employee is doing every minute. Letting your imagination run wild will only drive you crazy.
• Communicate, communicate, communicate. The one area in which virtual employees are a clear additional burden is communication. You’ll need to do more of it – a lot more of it. They aren’t in the office, so they miss a lot of the communication the rest of us take for granted. We pick up a lot just walking around and overhearing things. People also share things when they run into each other or when they eat lunch. Keep virtual employees in the loop. You don’t want to look them in the eye and say, “Didn’t anyone tell you? That deadline got changed.”
• Be inclusive. Just because people aren’t full-time employees sitting at a desk within view doesn’t mean that you should treat them like the unpopular relatives at a family wedding. As we’ve noted elsewhere, people perform best when they find meaning and community. Both of those are pretty hard to achieve when everything you do makes it clear that they are Not One of Us. Invite them to attend meetings (they can’t contribute anything if they aren’t there), ask them to join you the gang for lunch (or dinner) if there’s a group activity, keep them apprised of your department’s goals and progresses. Help people understand how they fit in.
• Use technology. When working with virtual employees, it’s a given that that they’ll use lap tops and Blackberries or smart phones. Don’t overlook other technology that can make it easier, too. That includes using a company Intranet to post information and shared work, Webinar software to improve virtual meetings, collaboration tools and even video teleconferencing. You’ll be surprised how much difference it makes to everyone when they can see – as well as hear – each other.
• Don’t over-rely on email. Yes, technology is a good thing. And it’s easy to rely on email because it’s fast, easy and readily available 24/7. But don’t let it be a crutch when you (and others) communicate with virtual employees. Email is more impersonal and makes it harder to build bridges and establish bonds. The informality of email (and, let’s face it, the scant attention we usually pay to writing it) also opens the door to misunderstandings about tone and intent. Pick up the phone. Have meetings.