How Do You Manage an Off-Site Team?
THE IDEA IN BRIEF
Having employees in alternative workplaces, usually their homes, is a growing trend in management. Companies are closely monitoring the results from their own pilot projects as well as those of other firms. In this case study, acrimonious e-mails have revealed a serious rift between two at-home workers as well as larger flaws in the way the off-site program is managed.
Craig, manager at the hypothetical Impressions Corporation, has two work-at-home employees at each other's virtual throats. His off-site program grew gradually, and while he's proud of the increased volume, he bemoans his lack of connection with his people. Now, Allison is threatening to quit because Penny acts domineering, and Penny—whom Craig sees much more frequently—thinks Allison is falling down on the job. The e-mails are coming fast and furious.
This hypothetical situation and the expert commentary illustrate that alternative workplaces are not just a matter of "give 'em a laptop and a cell phone." If anything, the new virtual organization calls for more thoughtful planning and attentive management than traditional workplaces do. The experts agree that an immediate, face-to-face meeting and reconciliation between Allison and Penny is paramount, but manager Craig has more work to do to ensure the long-term success of his off-site project.
THE IDEA IN PRACTICE
The experts distill five key principles from the situation at Impressions Corporation:
1. Managing people off-site requires even more rigorous management to maintain personal contact. The goal is not simply to have the people who happen to be in the office feel connected. You want everyone—wherever they’re located—to be on board. Regular face-to-face meetings and scheduled social events can help you accomplish this.
2. Appropriateness, not just accessibility, should be the reason that people receive choice assignments or invitations to meetings. Woody Allen said that most of life is just showing up—but managers who favor off-site employees who just happen to show up more frequently in the office are asking for trouble.
3. Managers, especially those steeped in the traditions of an earlier era, should receive special training about how to oversee an alternative workplace. For example, off-site employees may require more attention through appropriate media—say e-mail or videoconferencing—to keep them feeling and acting like part of the team.
4. E-mail is great for quick and routine matters, but it shouldn’t be used for sensitive issues. Careless writing or outright malice when using e-mail can cause a minor mix-up to spin out of control.
5. When conflict does arise, the manager must address the problem directly. Take stock of the composition of the team, the assignments—anything that may have caused the current problem and that may lead to further complications. Let all team members make suggestions about improving the situation.
Who's in charge? Although yesterday's hierarchy is giving way to today's teams, every team—even one that's geographically dispersed—needs clearly identified leaders whose roles and responsibilities are unambiguous.