Libby Cantwell had deep roots in Ottawa, so when she was offered a big promotion two years ago to manage a department with 30 employees in Toronto, she was torn.
It was a great career move but, “I also wanted to be near my family and friends and I had purchased a house close to downtown Ottawa with a great backyard – something I didn’t think was possible if I lived in Toronto,” says Ms. Cantwell, director of internal firm services operations for the management services division of PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP.
In years past, she would have had to give up one or the other, but Ms. Cantwell became what experts say will be increasingly common in a global economy: an off-site manager.
Not only that, she found she can do it from an office in her home.
Her previous job was senior human relations manager at PwC’s Ottawa office. “It was important for me to stay away from the office to get them used to the fact that there was a new HR manager and they couldn’t come to me with questions [related to her previous role],” she explains.
Setting up in her home was easier than she expected. She uses her own laptop and smartphone with instant messaging. The company provides an online meeting system for presentations and file sharing and its intranet has an instant messaging system and the ability to do online chats via her computer with individuals or groups.
“Video conferencing team meetings makes me feel like I’m in the actual meeting room. In some ways, I feel as close to my staff as I would if I was in the office with them every day,” she says.
Long-distance management is a growing phenomenon as managers get responsibilities for teams that are located in a different city or country, says Jesse Hermann, a Boston-based specialist in interim management.
Conference calls, video conferencing and instant messaging have made managing at any distance viable, but managers need to acknowledge their limitations and develop strategies to stay on top of what’s going on in their absence, cautions Mr. Hermann, whose advice about the limits of long-distance management appeared in a recent issue of the Stanford Business magazine. (He’s recently been appointed managing director at a private equity firm.)
Even the best conference calls can miss the cues employees will give from body language. And there’s a greater risk of inattention that can lead to misunderstandings, Mr. Hermann cautions.
“People who aren’t in the same room are more apt to try to multitask and be distracted than in a physical meeting,” he says. “What I do is specifically remind people at the start of a conference call, ‘I’m aware you’re all busy and you want to keep it tight, so let’s avoid distractions and put full focus on the task at hand.’”
Another potential pitfall can be the “imperialization” that comes with lack of visibility, he says.
Like in The Wizard of Oz , when a leader is perceived as being somewhere else and it’s necessary to schedule an appointment for an audience, people may hesitate to follow up on minor points they find unclear. This can lead to misunderstandings about expectations. And when the manager does visit the office, it can lead to rehearsed presentations and orchestrated tours that may skirt around issues that might be developing in the office, Mr. Hermann has found.
When off-site managers are physically in the office, it’s important to de-imperalize the relationship by having personal meetings with staff and scheduling more informal opportunities to have discussions, such as lunches or social events, he recommends. “With an established comfort level, there’s more information flow and honest and substantive discussion.”
Another challenge is that remote managers miss out on the water cooler discussions and informal “management-by-walking-around” chats that help clarify expectations and suggest opportunities for change. “While technology does make it possible to have virtual face time, the more physical presence you can put in the better,” Mr. Hermann says. “Business remains a human enterprise and seeing operations up close and in person is still critical to success.”
Rebecca Tann says she’s tackled the challenges of keeping it personal while managing teams dispersed across four time zones in Canada and the United States as vice-president of co-working space company Regus North America.
While Regus is based in Dallas, when she got the job four years ago, she decided to stay in her home in Boulder, Colo.
“When you accept a leadership position, you also take on the role of motivator and connector. So, even when your staff is geographically dispersed, it’s important to cultivate a team environment where your employees feel connected to you – and to each other. A culture of teamwork promotes accountability, responsibility, and a sense of support, rather than a disjointed every-man-for-himself attitude,” she says.
She’s a proponent of social media and encourages employees to communicate with her and each other whenever they choose via social media. “For example, I suggest they tweet an article that a colleague was quoted in, post a holiday greeting to a co-worker’s Facebook page, or connect and participate in discussion groups on LinkedIn.
“Being a remote manager, you have to work at being an extrovert; you have to be on the phone and in communication throughout the day,” Ms. Tann says. “It’s not for an introvert.”
“When a big chunk of your communication is done through e-mail, it’s easy to let messages sit in your inbox, under the guise that you’ll get to them later,” she adds. “This can be frustrating to employees, since by the time they hear back from you, they may have already received an answer or moved on to the next part of their project.”
So to avoid this backup, she strives to provide immediate feedback as work is delivered.
“… With constant communication and the right resources, you can successfully lead your virtual team to success. And let’s face it – this type of mobile leadership is something more of us will need to embrace in the future,” Ms. Tann believes.
Ms. Cantwell agrees.
Two years into her job, she’s finding it’s working well to co-ordinate her team from Ottawa. She feels her staff has been effective and productive even though she only comes to the Toronto office three or four days a month to have direct meetings.
“As I don’t see my team on a daily basis, I have to trust them,” she says. “And the trust I get in return from my colleagues has made me a better manager.”
Keeping the mice at bay
Advice for remote managers from Rebecca Tann of Regus North America, an office space rental firm:
Provide instant feedback.
Acknowledge good work and provide constructive criticism in real time. When you’re not regularly face-to-face, it can be easy to let things slide.
Set a consistent communication routine.
A predictable schedule of personal calls or, even better, video conference or Skype, with each direct report will help them feel comfortable bringing up issues and clarifying misunderstandings.
Build a virtual water cooler.
In conference calls or Skype meeting, encourage people to share “did you hear about this?” stories and ask “what’s the real story?” questions. It helps stop the rumour cycle and and at the same time gets everyone thinking about the same issues.
Create real face time.
Being physically in the office regularly remains important. When there, ensure that you touch base with every one in your team.
Promote team interaction.
When in the office, create informal social events, such as lunches, to build familiarity.