Managing a team of telecommuters or remote freelancers may sound easy — after all, you don’t have to deal with them as frequently or as personally as employees who work out of the same office as you. But if you’ve ever actually managed an off-site team, you probably know that it can quickly become more trouble than managing on-site employees if you aren’t careful. These five tips for keeping people on-task when you’re off-site will make remote management that much easier.
1. Learn (and Teach Others) to Communicate Online
Online communication differs in subtle and not-so-subtle ways from speaking face-to-face or even over the telephone. Many people understand the damage that a sarcastic email can do if misinterpreted and how often facial expressions get lost in videoconferencing, but others just don’t get it. You may need to coach your team on the fundamentals of online communication or even review them yourself.
2. Manage Information Flow and Decision Structures
In a physical office, there may be specific protocols about who has the power to make which decisions (independently or in a group) and who needs to be updated on the progress of a project. A team that only communicates online needs to have these rules fleshed out much more clearly. You don’t want to be the last to learn that last week’s project missed its deadline and no one thought to CC you.
3. Respect Cultural and Geographical Differences
This is a good rule for every manager to observe, but it becomes doubly important when working with distant freelancers or consultants. Know which time-zone the person you’re speaking to lives in, and be considerate when scheduling video-conferences and other real-time events. If a person’s behavior seems strange or rude to you, consider whether it might have to do with a cultural custom. Meetings aren’t run the same way in America and Japan.
4. Get to Know Your Team Members
While water-cooler chit-chat isn’t part of telecommuting culture, that doesn’t mean the people you work with have to remain anonymous. If your team is located within commuting distance, invite them in for the occasional meeting or even grab a beer together on the weekend — or, without being nosy, ask a friendly question over email once in awhile. You’ll be surprised how much it can strengthen a professional relationship to create a personal connection.
5. Don’t Favor Employees Who Have a Presence On-site
It is very easy to prioritize people whom you see in person over those you don’t. While in certain situations the people who work on-site may actually have more value to a company than those who don’t, this is rarely a hard and fast rule. Make sure that you think rationally about who you assign projects to, how you reward employees and where your loyalties lie. The guy who works from home but shows up for Tuesday’s meeting isn’t necessarily more dedicated than the guy who lives on the other side of the country but never misses a deadline.
While off-site management can yield very high productivity, it can also require a more hands-on approach to compensate for the distance involved. A good rule is to communicate as clearly and consistently as possible, which you may notice sums up four out of the five tips listed above. If you establish high expectations regarding communication with your team early, you can avoid many problems later on. What tips or anecdotes do you have about off-site management? How did you handle the transition from on-site to off-site management?
Remote video conferencing is something else you may want to consider. With Blue Jeans’ you can seamlessly connect your room system to anyone on virtually any video enabled device.
Melissa Woodson is the community manager for @WashULaw, a top-tier online LLM in U.S. law and a premier llm degree offered by Washington University in St. Louis. In her spare time, she enjoys running, cooking, and making half-baked attempts at training her dog.