Branching Out: 21 Tips for Keeping Distant Staff Close

Friday, March 1, 2013 - 11:56

By Gerard McManus

In the global hunt for specialist services and expertise, even micro businesses are using people in distant parts of the world to undertake select tasks, to produce and sell their goods and services, and to represent them.

A cleaning business may have its payroll done by a part-time consultant; a solicitor's office may have its IT functions being upgraded in India; while website design for a local bakery may be done in Bulgaria.

For any larger businesses, or those seeking to be one, the ultimate goal is to have branches or company representatives situated interstate or in foreign lands.

Even if your organisation does not have a far-flung frontier, trends such as telecommuting and virtual offices create their own tyranny of distance. But, as with the armies, traders and missionaries of yesteryear, the strategies of securing uniform cultural norms, seamless systems and functional disciplines are the imperatives that bind the company together, ensure continuity of services and results, and ultimately their long-term survivability.

Despite instant communication from webcams and Skype to emails and teleconferences, remoteness still creates psychological chasms between people. Close human interactions are not replaceable by artificial means (or at least not yet).

Out-of-sight can still be out-of mind and dispersed teams and far-flung "outliers" require a more nuanced set of management skills.

Here are 21 tips that help reduce the reality of remoteness:

  1. Lay clear foundations for a productive long-distance relationship from the start by having a comprehensive blueprint for the outlier's job. Clearly written procedures and policies are the spine of any operation, but provide particular structure and direction for outliers to empower them to work independently without needing to ask questions all day long. Outliers also need to understand the expected effort levels and deliverables.
  2. Blanket communication: Outliers need/crave communication more than normal employees. There needs to be a more or less unbroken conversation. And because they miss out on everyday interactions, you need to substitute with a mix of communications from regular formal discussions, informational "transactions", through to "shoot the breeze" chatter.
  3. Help keep things in perspective:Being in an outpost can be lonely and make a person vulnerable. Sometimes their thinking gets distorted. A small sales slump may feel catastrophic to the long-distance sales person. The manager has to remember a remote worker doesn't have the same opportunity to tap in and realise other people may have slipped up or be in a rut as well.
  4. Being in the loop is important: Keep up a constant flow of information, including what may seem like inconsequential news, office tidbits and updates on other personnel. People like to feel they are "in the loop" and part of the team. This also assists the outlier to contextualise information and data. No news for a fortnight followed by one terse email can be deflating. Involve outliers in head office events – birthday parties, sports tipping competitions, sweeps and other special occasions.
  5. Learn to understand the outlier's personality type and mindset. Are they technical or social types? Do they have a sense of humour or none? Do they respond better to certain methods of communicating? Do they have higher and lower energy levels at certain times of the day?
  6. Phoning is friendlier: Emails, skype and chat rooms are fine for regular or routine communications, but sensitive or complex issues that require unpacking and feedback require two human voices. The more isolated the outlier, the more special attention they may need.
  7. Establish routines: Arguably more important in the remote office environment than the real one, routines provide a sense of stability and predictability. These could include set-time touch-base phone calls, weekly reporting meetings with set agendas, as well as written reports that should arrive at the same time. Scheduling meetings on the same day at the same time also assists managers in their goal of hitting their numbers.
  8. Split meetings into specific operational or sales matters and reporting and brainstorming ideas. It is important to differentiate between the two concepts, or at a minimum, mark the conversation changeover from practical matters to the conceptual.
  9. Numbers game: Without personal supervision, the next best substitute is verifiable data. Peter Drucker's phrase "if you can't measure it, you can't manage it" is a truism that is totally applicable in dealing with an outlier. Numbers help with accountability and achieving goals. What is being produced? When is it being produced? How many? How much is it costing? etc. Demand reporting. Customer relationship management systems help in this regard.
  10. Be flexible and accommodating: Especially in taking into account foreign and distant cultures and norms. Giving outlier autonomy is important, but "lone ranger" representatives doing everything their own way can also cause grief and tarnish the company's reputation. Be cognisant of time zones and other factors such as local public holidays or festivals and feed these into the calendar to allow people room in their non-work lives.
  11. Employees as a brand: Every employee is a potential advertisement for your organisation, especially one on the frontline selling your product or service or building a branch. Their clothing and grooming, the way they answer the phone and the patter with which they deal with clients project an image or impression of professionalism or sloppiness depending on how well the systems of training have been established.
  12. Appear in person: Where possible, regular visits from the manager or for the outlier to return to head office are valuable opportunities for real conversations. There is still no substitute for face-to-face meetings because they help build and cement relationships, provide reassurance, and iron out any misunderstandings and ambiguities about the role.
  13. Articulate the culture: Impress on the outlier the company's intrinsic culture and way of doing things, and back this with real-life examples. A bank watches every cent that goes through its business, whereas a promotions company likes to splash money around. Some companies are purely results driven; others are about putting in billable hours. Define your company culture and expectations about what is and what is not appropriate.
  14. Uniform and substitutes: Uniforms are used by service industries such as hospitality and retail to create a sense of esprit de corps and identity, but other firms use hats, badges, T-shirts, as well as monogrammed shirts, scarves and ties to make outliers feel part of a team.
  15. Pick up warning signs: Be alert for signs of unhappiness or restlessness that suggest the outlier is considering leaving or suffering low morale. Abrupt emails, reduced output, disinclination to engage in normal communications, and if they are no longer bouncing around ideas, are some of the signs. And make sure you have a "Plan B" – having a replacement strategy and a handover plan is crucial. At head office you can usually plug bodies in holes when necessary, but finding someone in a distant location is sometimes difficult and requires long lead times.
  16. Transfer wins from one location to the other. Celebrate wins and breakthroughs, have other workers congratulate the outlier for good performances. Get them a power-point presentation of their work so other relevant workers can learn about what they do.
  17. Security: Make sure computer files are backed up from the outlier's office and systems are in place so they are compliant with company policies.
  18. Find out what motivates the outlier: More often than not, it is not money, but peer recognition, awards, occasional small gifts, or unceasing praise and support. Whatever it is that incentivises them, find out.
  19. Don't over-manage: Set the benchmarks but give outliers responsibility: they are meant to be autonomous. Leadership as a support role is the very nature of the relationship between a manager and an outlier.
  20. Be precise in emails, particularly those with important guidelines, strategic changes and other specific instructions. The written word is still paramount because it serves as a permanent record that can be referred to in disputes. Spend extra time so there is no need for guesswork on the part of the outlier and you don't regret things later.
  21. Be dependable: Do what you say you are going to do. If you promise a new laptop or new business cards, make sure they are delivered. If you promise technical or financial support, provide it. Dependability builds trust.