Speaker Shares Keys to Managing Virtual Workers

By Kathy Gurchiek Jun 29, 2011
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LAS VEGAS—Kyra Cavanaugh, president of Park Ridge, Ill.-based Life Meets Work, shared eight keys to overseeing virtual workers and teams during the June 28, 2011, concurrent session, “Managing People You Can’t See” at the Society for Human Resource Management’s (SHRM) 63rd Annual Conference & Exposition in Las Vegas.

“You already possess the skills to manage the people you can’t see,” Cavanaugh told HR professionals.

First, identify and acknowledge that there is a level of discomfort to having virtual employees and teams. Some of that discomfort comes from logistical and tactical concerns and issues of trust that are rooted in the Industrial Revolution’s structure of work.

HR can achieve buy-in for introducing virtual workers and teams by making the business case to senior leadership and linking one of the company’s strategic goals for the year to the telework program.

Then ask to pilot the concept in one part of the organization for a limited period of time.

“You want to start slow and build. Find a manager willing to take this on,” she advised.

Second, objectively evaluate requests to work remotely. Look at the needs of the business, the nature of the employee’s job, the employee’s work style, departmental restrictions or limitations, and the employee’s performance.

“Think about it like any other business decision,” and not about whether someone’s mother is sick, she said, citing one example.

Third, reply to such requests with “no, and” or “yes, and.”

If the request is made by an employee who has difficulty making deadlines, explain that if there is improvement in this area in three months, the request can be revisited and the decision possibly reversed.

If the request is approved, explain that if the employee is not meeting expectations, the approval to work remotely will be rescinded, Cavanaugh advised.

Fourth, agree upon and document team values by creating and signing a Virtual Team Agreement. It requires everyone on the virtual team to agree to a certain set of behaviors, such as expectations on how often people are expected to respond to e-mails and voice mails, whether conference calls are mandatory or optional, and if participation in company social activities such as birthday parties are optional.

The manager can create a first draft of the document and then meet with the team for their input to create a final version of the agreement. This prompts a conversation about expectations—a conversation that typically doesn’t even happen with employees working on site, Cavanaugh observed.

The agreement “doesn’t go in the HR folder … tack it on your wall and every six months bring it up again. It creates a mutual set of expectations.”

Five, harness technology, whether that’s instant messaging, group chat, micro-blogging, group meetings, enterprise social networking, teleconferencing, virtual whiteboards, file sharing, project tracking or e-mail.

Also, consider switching the type of technology used, such as using conference calls one week, a group chat the next. For teams where only one person may be working remotely and using teleconferencing to participate in meetings, consider having everyone on the team teleconference into the meeting from their own work area. This helps to create a more level playing field for all participants.

Six, set goals and track performance, but be careful in finding the right balance between trust and micromanaging the remote worker.

Seven, communicate deliberately. This includes remembering to ask about people on your team when communicating with them—even if it means sticking a reminder note on your computer.

It can span the gamut from asking about someone’s weekend to asking about someone after noticing a change in behavior, such as an employee who typically peppers his or her e-mails with exclamation points and then suddenly stops doing so.

Eight, build a strong, cohesive team. This can include having virtual happy hours; pairing the remote employee with an office “buddy” who keeps him or her current on office news; having employees take turns running the remote meeting and including a team-building exercise such as talking about their vacation plans. There also should be occasional group meetings where everyone is physically present.

“We need to change our thinking that people are being productive if they’re on site,” she said, “but can’t be productive if they’re putting in a load of laundry while working” from home.

Kathy Gurchiek is associate editor for SHRM

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