MANAGING VIRTUALLY: HELLO, ANYBODY OUT THERE?

I remember the first time I heard the word telework in the late 1990’s. At the time, I was working in a Fortune 500 corporation and the CEO scoffed at the idea. His comment: “I want to see the parking lot full of cars. That’s the only way I know that work will get done, why don’t you go learn this here now so that you get a car yourself.” We all laughed at his Luddite attempt to stop the progress of this exciting new trend.

Fast forward to today. Telework or working virtually for a place other than a bricks and mortar office has become the norm for most organizations. In major metropolitan areas where commute times have morphed into multi-hour nightmares, being able to work from home or some other nearby location has become essential to retaining employees and addressing quality of work/life challenges.

So why do we still struggle to get it right. Stories abound about the headaches of managing remote staff. Why is such a sensible, pragmatic and feasible idea so difficult to execute well?

I believe that the root cause of failed virtual workforces is poor quality performance management. If the performance plans are badly written, if the work is ill-defined, hard to measure, or continuously changing, managing remotely will not work. When manager and employee are working face-to-face, they can use constant, spontaneous interactions to buttress up badly defined work. But when they are separated by miles and only communicate sporadically, performance and business results will suffer.

When one of your staff asks to telework, review their work plans, productivity measures, and milestone deliverables to make sure that the output is measurable and trackable. Define a pilot window based on the metrics and track performance output. Monitor and measure. If the work is getting done, move from the pilot to full implementation. If work output suffers, determine why. Is the work difficult to measure? Does success require face-to-face interaction? Some work simply does not translate well into remote execution.

A more insidious impediment for remote workers is a lack of infrastructure. There are so many good collaboration tools for remote workers such as Google Hangouts, Adobe products and Citrix products yet I often see employees approved to work remotely without any technical support. Make sure that your staff’s home work environment is configured for the work that they will need to do.

When trying to decide whether to embrace telework, let the work itself drive your decision, not your comfort level with employees working at a distance.