Managing a Virtual Boss

Friday, June 28, 2013 - 08:12

By Leon Gettler

In this day and age of telecommuting and remote working, more and more people are working with bosses they never see. Managing a virtual boss is a completely new skill set.

Michael Watkins at the Harvard Business Review says people in that situation need to do several things. The first is to find a way to spend some face time with the boss early on as there is no way you can make a personal connection and lay the foundation for a strong working relationship solely through electronic means. Secondly, he recommends finding the right way of electronic communication. Some prefer email, others do it by instant message or text.

Also, pick up the phone more than you would if you were located nearby. If you can’t talk in real time, he says, make more use of voice mail. Another good strategy is to find the right windows for making contact. Take the time to figure out your boss’s routines and identify times when she is more likely to be available. And finally, he says you need to discipline yourself to make the connection. In the end, it’s your responsibility, it’s not up to the boss.

"Force yourself to take the initiative to reach out regularly," Watkins says. "Put reminders to do so into your calendar. Above all, keep in mind that the consequences of getting disconnected, and going off course as a result, will mostly be borne by you."

In her book, Managing Your Virtual Boss, Carmela Southers recommends scheduling a twenty minute one-on-one conversation with your boss every week for updates. Also, make sure that your twenty-minute call ends early (your boss will appreciate the gift of time). And ask your boss a simple question: “what can I do to make myself easier to manage?” (they will appreciate that). Also, share your success stories with an emphasis on the names of those who helped you, see every email as an opportunity to build trust, relationships and reputation and leverage your flexibility as a virtual worker to build your own professional network. Remember, the best defence is a good offence so never let your boss be caught by surprise. If you can’t reply immediately to your boss, explain your current situation (e.g. on a call) and when you will respond and remember, if you work in a matrix organisation, each boss and team leader may require a different approach.
Like Watkins, Southers makes it clear that it’s the responsibility of the worker, not the boss who is unlikely to be trained for that sort of thing.

“Fewer layers of management, a larger span of control and the virtual workplace makes your boss’s job more challenging,” Southers writes. “When your office moves into virtual space, many of the lessons learned from the face-to-face experiences of leading, partnering and teamwork are no longer effective. Even if your boss attends great leadership training, most of the leadership techniques taught to managers are designed for management by walking around, not management via email. Your boss needs to feel informed, valued and safe from the surprises that happen when he or she cannot see you working.”