How Can I Manage Them When I Can’t See Them?

June 1, 2015

Happy entrepreneur working with a phone and laptop in a coffee shop in the streetAs early as 2002 one of my earliest studies of work patterns indicated that on average knowledge workers were spending only about 35% of their work time inside their assigned corporate facility. They were spending another 30% of their time working out of home offices, and the remainder in “Third Places” like coffee shops, libraries, public parks, hotels, and airports.

Think about that: a full two-thirds of knowledge work now takes place outside of corporate facilities. That sounds like a strikingly large number, but I and many others have conducted numerous studies clearly demonstrating that organizational work today is widely dispersed across many different kinds of locations. Most of us today act as if it doesn’t matter whether the people we are in conversation with are across a desk, across the room, across town, or on another continent.

Yet one of the most common complaints I hear about letting local employees work remotely even just a day or two a week is “How can I manage them if I can’t see them?” Of course that attitude reflects many years of having immediate subordinates within eyesight; most managers still rely on “management by walking around” as a way to exercise control over their staff. The managers can see what their staff are doing, and they generally presume that their physical presence acts a constant reminder of their authority and the need for everyone to stay busy.

Actually a more accurate way of describing the reaction  many employees have to their managers constantly watching them (and even peering over their shoulders) is that they find all kinds of ways to look busy.

A colleague who was for several years an advocate of workforce flexibility for a well-known consumer products company reported that he was once asked how he intended to measure the work performance of remote employees. He replied, “The same way we do now” – meaning that the company actually wasn’t doing anything formally to measure how well its in-office workers were doing their jobs.

Many of us actually communicate with other people located somewhere else more often than we do with those who are sitting across the aisle or at the next workstation. For most of us telephone conversations and email correspondence are simply the primary way we interact today.

Yes, leadership in a flexible, distributed work environment is a bit more complex than it is when everyone is in the same physical location – but when done right it’s actually easier.

To build effective distributed teams and ensure the context is right for meaningful conversation and productive work, leaders of flexible work teams must master four basic tasks:

  1. Use highly participative approaches as you establish new distributed work environments. Pull out all your books and articles about introducing major organizational change, and follow their advice. Involving your team in defining the way it is going to work will instill a much higher level of commitment than if you simply impose mandates.
  2. Establish explicit, tangible performance measures. Managing a distributed workforce requires team leaders to shift their focus away from tight control of workers’ activities and toward managing results. Make sure that team leaders and their staff agree in advance on how performance will be measured and rewarded. The most effective distributed work programs I have seen include explicit processes for establishing performance contracts between participants and the organization. Those contracts identify tangible results, specific deadlines, and other agreements about mutual accountabilities and appropriate support levels.
  3. Define and publish formal policies and procedures for distributed work. It’s far too easy to slip into all kinds of special arrangements for different individuals, but that’s a recipe for disaster—if not lawsuits.
  4. Develop formal agreements about regular communication. Infrequent communication usually makes both managers and distributed workers uncomfortable. Periodic face-to-face conversations are important, but with effective telephone, e-mail, and instant messaging contact it doesn’t have to happen as often as many managers might think. I believe live personal contact should occur at least once a week.

Managing distributed work does take some extra effort because those opportunities for chance meetings at the water cooler or in the company cafeteria – to say nothing of on-the-spot supervision, problem solving, and coaching – aren’t there as often.

But managing distributed staff effectively really just means being a good leader. Leaders must still know what work needs to be done and what kind of guidance and support each subordinate needs to be successful. Some of the rules may have changed, but it’s still the same basic game.

Contact me for a free consultation about how you can lead your organization into a flexible future. And ask me about how you can join my ongoing monthly “Talking About Tomorrow” open conversation series.


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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Bary Sherman June 2, 2015 at 3:35 pm

The first time I heard this comment wanting to see their people working at their desks was in 1992 when “home office” concept first began as an organizational initiative. It’s difficult to understand why this level of thinking is still around 20+ years later.


David Fleming June 2, 2015 at 5:36 pm

Strange how those words echo how we encouraged/urged managers to shift their style from the industrial age to information age — back in the early 1980’s and before. Thinking of Alvin Toffler’s “Third Wave” and remembering Jack Nilles’ quote: “Management by results, not policing.”
Thanks for stirring my memories. We’ve still a way to go, dragging those younger 21st managers into the knowledge and true leadership modes. Odd that we thought the younger managers would get, yet they tend to follow their older leaders’ style. Sigh!


Darryl Bell June 4, 2015 at 7:57 am

Far too often the management approach for managing people who are working from home or even working in a different office/campus, is to use the ‘out of sight, out of mind management style’.

Management by Walking Around is a good approach to managing. However, the concept must be applied virtually, otherwise it can’t be used. This is especially true in the technology world as more and more companies move to a distributed workforce.


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