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Want your telecommuter IT team members  to feel like they’re part of the same team that works at the company offices? Keeping teleworkers part of the team and engaged is more psychology than technology.
In 1990, I started a publication that eventually employed more than 35 people. I hired writers, lab and art directors, publishing designers, and editors from around the U.S. At the time, it was a radical notion to get the best people to work for me by collaborating from remote locations.

Young woman with laptop on the red cliff

Since then, teleworking has taken off. David Clemons, co-author of the book Managing the Mobile Workforce: Leading, Building, and Sustaining Virtual Teams, calculates that in 2011 there were more than one billion mobile workers worldwide. And nearly 75% of the U.S. workforce is mobile, if not working remotely, at least part of the time. Even the U.S. government has embraced what is now called teleworking, enacting legislation in 2010 to support the effort across all federal agencies.

Manager and CIOs considering how to create a productive and happy teleworking team (especially an IT team) have a lot more resources than I did back when I started Network Computing magazine. There is a large body of literature of best practices, guidelines, and case studies of what to do and what not to do in managing a remote group of technical people. Even though we have ubiquitous broadband and remote technology galore, what makes for successful remote workers has more to do with psychology and sociology than any particular technology. Here are some tips to better manage your teleworkers.

1. Think strategically. You are setting policy, not just satisfying a particular individual or set of circumstances. The most successful teleworking situations come from the top, where the overall policy can be crafted and supported. This is what Brett Caine, the senior VP and GM of Citrix Online, wrote in the Huffington Post in 2011. But changing your “management mindset” isn’t easy, and requires you to become a better leader. “Think about adjusting the way you lead. Setting clear, outcome-based goals, defining what needs to be done by whom and rewarding performance,” Caine wrote.

Supporting this position is a U.S. government website with loads of resources on teleworking management, not relevant only to those in this country or government-related project. You’ll find loads of practical suggestions and sample telework agreements that can be used as models for your own policies and employee contracts.

2. Teleworking can save both office space and money. Citrix calls its program “workshifting” to refer to both remote working and employees who share common office pods when they do come into their office buildings. As you might imagine, a tech company selling several remote access products is a big booster of the concept. More than a quarter of its global 8,000 employees now work remotely at least three days per week, and another half telework at least one day a week. Citrix has increased the capacity of some of its offices by 50% and reduced each employee’s needs to less than 100 square feet.  That is less than a third of what a typical company office space requirement would be.

Clemons cites the shift at financial firm Deloitte, a company with more than 90% of it employees as regular telecommuters, as a business in which each employee acts more like his own boss in determining his career direction. “There has been a flood in the last few years towards remote workers,” says Clemons. “It is absolutely ordinary these days for managers to be called in for a meeting at headquarters from a variety of off-site locations, but their workflow never gets interrupted.”

3. Close the trust gap. One big issues for managers is dealing with what Citrix’ Caine calls the “trust gap.” Managers have to get over the issue of not having their staff nearby but trusting they are still working remotely. “Most of our staff is working harder than ever,” he says. “You need to establish the rules of engagement up front and over-communicate with exceptional clarity.” Clemons says that trust “can make or break your ability to motivate your workers and to get things done.”

4. Realize that not everyone is a fit for remote working. “Think carefully about which roles within the organization are suited to virtual working; and develop criteria for eligibility, such as whether performance can be measured remotely and whether responsibilities depend on daily face-to-face interactions with peers, clients and/ or managers,” says Caine. People whose businesses are covered by various regulatory requirements or who handle confidential data may not be the best fits for teleworking.

5. Hire smart. Perhaps the best advice is to start right from the beginning, during the hiring process, when you are considering who should be the next member of your team. Bryan Cooley, CEO of gaming site Yoero.com and a serial software entrepreneur, has been in this position. He has been managing more than 250 technical people remotely over the past four years. Right now Cooley has 10 people working for him from different places around the world. He emailed me this week from Brazil, although he has lived in various parts of the U.S., Asia, and Europe too. Cooley’s biggest challenge, he says, is handling time zone differences.

A lot comes down to the hiring process.  “By choosing the right people up front, you can avoid lots of headaches,” Cooley says. “I take great lengths to find the best people I can from the start; and I try to never hire someone out of desperation. If I can’t find someone really good, I will even sometimes even let a project lapse or delay it and do something else instead.”

Part of his smart hiring practice is writing job descriptions that go beyond the scope of a specific task. Cooley tests prospects with small tasks that require careful thinking and decision-making. He tries to avoid bringing on staff members who need lots of daily handholding.

6. Are you managing a team of people in one remote location or folks who are scattered all over the place? How you manage remote workers depend on the answer to this question. Your strategy could be different if you have one remote office with several people working alongside each other. This is the situation in which David Goodman found himself. Goodman is the CTO of the International Rescue Committee (IRC) in New York City. He manages three IT staffers in an office in Nairobi, Kenya who in turn support other IRC users all over the world.

Goodman didn’t get any explicit training from his organization when he was hired, and had to learn on the job how to handle his team in Kenya. One of the first things he did was set up a second clock in his office with Kenyan time to make the headquarters staff more sensitive to the schedule in Africa. “We also try to have meetings that intersect with their work day and ours, rather than in the middle of anyone’s night,” Goodman adds.

Goodman also brought the head of the Nairobi team to New York City for several months last summer. “Communication is always a challenge and having him spend time with the other senior managers really helped to integrate the staffs between the two cities,” he says. “There is no substitute for face time, and it is hard to develop a team espirit de corps without going out for beers together or spending time in the same office.”

Goodman also recognized his own limitations. He hired a direct report, someone who had prior experience handling field offices, based in New York who now is responsible for working with the Nairobi team and others around the world.

7. Know when to cut your losses. More important than hiring your next teleworker is in knowing when someone isn’t working out. “I have had people who I thought could improve and invested lots of time in trying to train them to save the project. I should have just cut them loose and tried again with someone else,” says Cooley. Be sensitive to these failures, and don’t let them linger.

“Our global service desk manager moved to San Diego, and we tried to have her manage her team from there,” said the IRC’s Goodman. “But it wasn’t working out because her team were still in NYC and she couldn’t easily participate in other management strategy discussions remotely. Some of her job responsibilities also weren’t very clear, which wasn’t as big a deal when she was here but got more important when she started working remotely.” The employee resigned.

telework.gov has suggestions on when to terminate a teleworker and under what conditions. I hope you don’t need these resources, but at least you know where to turn.

David Clemons knows we have come a long way since those early days. “We used to think that managing a mobile workforce was so simple, but we know it is more than just tossing someone a laptop. It takes a great deal of work to do it right,” he says. “It isn’t about technology. It is about how to handle the people in the organizations and build trust and motivation within the mobile team.”

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About David Strom

David Strom was the founding editor-in-chief of Network Computing magazine and also ran the editorial operations at DigitalLanding.com and Tom's Hardware.com. He is the author of two computer-networking books and over a 25-year career has written thousands of articles on a variety of subjects for the enthusiast, gaming, IT, network computing, channel, and electronics industries. Since September 1995, he has self-published a weekly series of essays called Web Informant, sent via email to several thousand subscribers. Over the course of his editorial career, he has helped launch dozens of editorial-rich websites and other publications. He can be reached at strominator.com, @dstrom on Twitter, and david@strom.com for the old schoolers that still use email.

  • http://twitter.com/dstrom David Strom

    One way NOT to do this is the recent news from Yahoo, and cutting off all teleworkers “just because.” Whatever their reasons, turning their policy off this abruptly isn’t good for most businesses. Granted, Yahoo is in a bit of a pickle and needs to cull their unproductive workforce. But perhaps they could have actually employed HR professionals to manage this transition from permissive to draconian a BIT better.

  • http://www.managing-virtual-teams.com/ Anna Danes

    Thanks for this article David! For me the key to a successful remote team is managing expectation and setting clear goals. When working with remote/virtual teams you need to spend more time communicating and motivating than with old-style teams. I don’t know much about Yahoo’s problem but what they did will not solve their problem. The teams needs to know exactly what you expect of them and the manager needs to work hard motivating and creating spaces for the team to meet.

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