Managing When You’re Not Face-to-Face

Do you manage people who don’t work out of the same office as you – whether it’s staff members in a satellite office or people who work from home? If so, we’ve got some tips for you (and “out of sight, out of mind” isn’t one of them).

The best way to think about managing people remotely is that it’s about doing all of the normal things you do as a manager, but doing them really, really well – so, for instance, having clear goals agreed to on the front-end, finding ways to get beneath the surface to what’s really going on, making sure you’re actually seeing the work in action so you can spot execution gaps, etc. – and of course, having great people in the first place.

Beyond that, though, you should also give special consideration to how to ensure the relationship works smoothly even though you’re not seeing each other regularly. In particular, we’ve found the following tips really help:

1. Double-down on having clear goals. We know we’re always preaching about goal-setting, but it’s especially important when you or your staff member are working remotely. Agreeing on clear, ambitious goals for what someone’s going to accomplish – and checking in on their progress against those goals regularly – is one of the most important things you can do when someone’s in a different location from you. When your remote staff member has the clear direction that goals give, the energy and urgency to achieve those goals can then come from them – rather than from you driving the work from afar.

2. Make sure you’re asking questions that will get beneath the surface. If your check-ins consist of a lot of “so how’s that going?” and “it’s great, thanks for asking,” you’re not going to have much feel for what’s going on. Instead, ask questions that really probe, like “How are you checking to make sure that’s working?” and “Can we take one specific instance and talk through how you’re approaching it?” (You can find more questions to help you understand how someone is operating here.)  This is always important, of course, but even more so when you’re not in the same location and seeing with your own eyes how things are playing out.

3. Find ways to see remote staff in action, whether it’s joining some of their phone calls, going on site visits, or shadowing them for a day. Not only is this essential to know what’s really going on in the field and to help you serve as a resource to the staffer, but there’s another effect of this too: when your remote staffer knows that you’ve seen her world firsthand and that you understand its dynamics and challenges, it can pretty dramatically increase the trust between you.

4Establish a clear system for communicating and be vigilant about sticking to it.  When someone is physically in the office with you, you can often get away with leaving communication systems informal. But with remote relationships, you’re less likely to talk regularly if you leave it ad hoc. So create a system and be vigilant about adhering to it! For instance, you might decide that (a) you’ll have one regularly scheduled phone meeting per week; (b) you won’t rely on email for macro or complicated issues and instead will get on the phone to hash them out; and (c) the staffer will come to your headquarters for a few days at least twice a year. You might also ask remote staffers to be especially responsive to calls and emails during business hours since you and others can’t just walk down the hall to their office.

5. Help everyone to stay in the loop. Since it can be harder for remote employees to know what’s going on in the office, make a special point of ensuring that they’re included in communications. For instance, if you’ve previously relied on giving informal updates when you return from big meetings, you might need to switch to a more formal staff meeting so that your remote workers don’t miss out on hearing that information.

6. Create opportunities for in-person interaction; this tends to be key for building trust and getting to know each other. If you have an entire remote team, try to bring everyone together several times a year.