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Managing up close and personal from far away

Managers must encourage employees to take their colleagues in different time zones into consideration when planning calls and teleconferences.

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When Soma Somasundaram needs to catch up with colleagues in Manila or Hyderabad, he consults his watch, mentally calculates the time difference from his office in Philadelphia, flips open his laptop and greets them using a webcam.

Most of the time, Mr Somasundaram, who heads research and development at Infor, a U.S.-based technology business, finds managing remote teams through today's virtual media works just fine. However, he is bothered by the attitude of some colleagues who schedule calls at hours that keep their Asia-Pacific counterparts working late into the night. "Accommodating others' time zones is something, I've found, that a lot of people just don't think about," he says.

While technologies that allow managers to pick the best brains from anywhere in a global organization and set them working together in cyberspace help companies to expand and improve career opportunities, there are downsides to the brave new world of cross-border working.

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Co-ordinating across time zones can be tricky, and unless employers divvy up the pain of working antisocial hours in a way that looks fair, the impression is left of a pecking order in which the comfort of staff in one region – probably the headquarters – takes priority over that of their colleagues in other time zones.

Then there is the challenge of how to foster a sense of common purpose and camaraderie among workers who join forces over Web-based platforms yet rarely, or never, meet in person. As Richard Thorpe, professor of management development at Leeds University Business School in Britain puts it: "Human beings are social animals for whom building relationships matters a great deal. Strip away the social side of team working and, very quickly, people feel isolated and unsupported."

One problem can be the desire of some bosses to hang on to the certainties of the 20th-century workplace, where managing included making sure the troops were at their desks by a certain time, in a physical office, and doing a standardized job.

In a global marketplace in which employees may be asked to join a late-night conference call with colleagues on the other side of the world, such rigidities may be counterproductive. Hence advocates of flexible working hours have long argued for a more elastic concept of the workplace that gives people the freedom to catch up with personal matters during office hours or simply to spend time, over virtual media, getting to know their remote colleagues a little better so that they feel part of a united team.

Being wired into a continuous conversation through a plethora of virtual channels is sometimes a poor substitute for sitting down, every so often, for a chat in person. While high-definition video-conferencing technologies enable people to see each other and thereby read each other's body language or facial expressions, few would claim that even the fanciest video systems can reproduce the intimacy of sharing physical space. That puts the onus on managers, who run remote teams, to spend time actively getting to know their people.

Furthermore, managing teams in cyberspace can prevent the use of informal channels that are so important for communication up the hierarchy – such as employees poking their heads round their manager's door if they see it is open or otherwise orchestrating to "bump" into them in the corridor.

As someone who manages others remotely and also reports across the Atlantic to a manager in New York, British-based Keith Turnbull, vice-president of global development at software business AppSense, says it is harder to bond with a boss when you are both sitting at a screen or talking over mobile phones. He has developed a habit of calling his colleagues without any specific agenda, in between scheduled one-to-ones, just as he might stop for a chat if he was walking round the company and they were to bump into each other.

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"If you don't keep track of the things that are worrying people, it's very easy for [remote workers]to feel neglected," Mr. Turnbull says.

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