Managing Remote Workers Takes Technology and Savvy

By Amy Zuckerman

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The virtual work place is a happening, whether it's a one-person shop based in an office suite, or a multinational corporation where a large percentage of a sales team works out of a home-based office.

Al Schmidt, CIO of Arch Chemical, headquartered in Norwalk, Conn., said the specialty chemical manufacturer has “a global workforce of 3,000 employees” with roughly half located overseas in 20 countries. In fact, he said the majority of their sales organization, both domestic and global, operates from home offices.

At any given time Kent Fernald, vice president of shared services for Court Square Data Group (CSDG) in Springfield, Mass., may be supervising a fifth of the 50 people in his department remotely, whether they are based in home or small rental offices. These are mainly projects managers and some technical staff working for this managed services consulting company that also provides IT solutions for companies in transition

Whether their employees number in the thousands or less than 100, CIOs of all types say they struggle to keep remote workers in the loop, feeling part of the team and struggle to use communication tools like email effectively.

“The biggest issue with remote employees is that unless there is a specific project or issue we are dealing with, there is hardly any communication. I think it has worked well with employees who have been with the company for a long period of time, allowing us to understand each other well,” said Sanjay Kucheria, president of IT Los Angeles-based, IT services company Trinus Crop.

His 200 employees most are based on the west coast, though there are employees on the east coast and in India, mainly working from home or client locations.

Even so, with distance and lack of face-to-face communication, all sorts of problems can be magnified. These CIOs, and others, agree that managing staff or subcontractors remotely takes a whole lot of skill, particularly with communication.

They offer the following thoughts and advice issues common to the virtual work place:

Beating the Distance: John Stevenson, former CIO for Sharp Electronics Corp. now owns JG Stevenson Associates, based in Dallas, Texas, and is a board member of the Society for Information Management (SIM) Foundation. In both roles, he deals with plenty of remote management issues and advocates meeting someone physically, face-to-face in the beginning whenever possible.

“If you can’t meet them, then try to do a video conference, or the phone if need be,” he said.

If the phone is the best tool you’ve got, he advises CIOs to keep “their ears open’ to learn as much as possible about the individual. Try to “put them in their comfort zone. If there were floods in their region, for example, ask how they coped. In those five minutes of conversation, you can learn so much about their communication and human relations style.”

Know When Technology Works: Arch Chemical’s Schmidt, who spent many years as an engineer at Bell Labs, learned a long time ago what work and what doesn’t. The nature of the meeting will determine the approach. For example, he said electronic tools work fine when the people know each other well, the issue is reoccurring, and the agenda is well defined.

“But for introductory meetings, or meetings where you are attempting to influence thinking, addressing personnel issues or when there could be conflict, then electronic tools don’t work so well,” he said.

At Trinus, sensitive issues are usually communicated via phone, at the very least, while “routine or procedural stuff is handled via email.”

Email is Double Edged: Who hasn’t regretted shipping off that email with a negative comment, let alone blasting it to a whole list of people by accident.Managers routinely struggle with how to manage employees and their email, which CSDG’s Fernald said is often used “incorrectly or badly. It’s great for facts, but when you need to convey feelings, emotions or controversial things, it can be taken wrong way.” He even had one person ask for a raise via email and threaten to quit if it wasn’t forthcoming.

Then there’s the issue of people “copying the universe”—effectively drowning colleagues in emails, said Fernald, who like many managers can get upwards of 300 emails a day.

He’s tried many approaches to dissuade people from this practice, including instituting Web-based forums where employees can register their feelings about an issue, or posting topics designed to assist everyone. But emails are quick and dirty and Fernald said the only way to wean people to new practices is through a combination of incentives and education.

Stevenson is critical of companies that use email to lay off people or convey bad news. CIOs, he said, need to know “when to stop using email and get on the phone.” And when they do use email they need to be “careful in their phrasing. Always ask for clarification in a nice way to make sure the two of you are synced,” he said.

Language Barriers: It’s tough enough to communicate when both CIO and staff share a native tongue, let alone with people whose native language doesn’t match yours. Schmidt said at Arch Chemical they tend to recruit people who speak English at least as a second language. In their foreign offices English is used as “the common bases for speaking.”

Clearly Defining Processes: With accounting, recruiting, finance, HR and other key departments moved off-shore to India, Kucheria said language nuances matter more than ever, along with clearly defining processes.

It’s imperative to set expectations “properly to know who was responsible for what tasks in each location. … simultaneously, establishing metrics for measuring job performance of remote staff was important for both the company and the employees,” he said.

Culture, Motivation and Capability: Stevenson considers these three factors key to managing staff or subcontractors remotely. A person’s cultural background will affect how they react. A CIO who doesn’t understand cultural nuances will be prone to misjudging an employee or subcontractor’s motivations, how they deal with relationships and their business style, he explains.

He also notes that it’s tough to determine someone’s capability from a distance “and get a true understanding of how they will perform on an assignment or mission without spending prior time with them. Maybe they're outstanding in technical issues or poor on human skills. If you're not sure, you can make a mistake that hurts the entire organization.”

Stevenson advises locating people with knowledge of the foreign culture in question. For example, if dealing with an Australian then find an American with knowledge of the Australian mindset.