Yes, It’s REMOTELY Possible!

The following post was written by Jeff Gerber, Senior Product Manager for Marketer’s Studio at Quad/Graphics. Jeff has more than 20 years’ experience in the publishing industry. He started out as a newspaper editor, then worked to implement workflow solutions at magazines and catalogs, and now leads a team at Quad/Graphics that designs, develops and implements a content management system for multi-channel merchants. Jeff and I have known each other for years and worked together several times. This is Jeff’s second post for Catalog U!

I manage a remote team. Four of us work from our homes – in Kansas City, Chicago, Connecticut and Virginia. The other two are based at our corporate headquarters in Milwaukee. But one works from home at least a couple days of week, and the other telecommutes as necessary.

In general, I’m a fan of the arrangement. With the people who work from home, the time they would normally spend on a commute gets plowed into work. And I think the members of our team have a better work-life balance. If they have a doctor’s appointment in the middle of the day or they want to run up to a child’s school, it’s no sweat. But if I need them to work extra hours on a project, they can do it and still eat dinner with their families.

In addition, the arrangement widens the pool of talent that’s available to us. With my most recent opening, I immediately knew of a talented person whom I wanted to hire. He lives nearly 800 miles from our corporate headquarters. But I didn’t have to convince my boss about the need to pay for his move to the Milwaukee area, and he didn’t have to persuade his wife to uproot their family. I just needed to ship him a company laptop, and we were off to the races.

That said, you don’t realize how important “water cooler” conversation is until it’s not there. It’s easy for people to feel isolated from both their immediate co-workers and the company at large. One member of my team once asked me, “How many people even know that I work for this company?”

So if you’re going to reap the benefits of a remote team, you need to put in extra time and effort to make the team successful. Here are my tips:

Meet one-on-one with each team member weekly for at least 30 minutes: I used to think my employees wanted me to keep these meetings as concise as possible. I’m busy; they’re busy. Let’s not waste any time. But that was the wrong approach. Now, in addition to business, I ask about their plans for the weekend, what their kids are doing in school, etc. You know, that stuff normal people talk about.

Delegate more: I used that think that I was being a good boss by sparing my team the drudgery of corporate life. So, I took it upon myself to attend inter-team meetings, conference calls, retrospectives with the development team and the like. But inadvertently, I was cutting off the remote employees from connections that could make them feel part of the greater whole. So now, I try to let them share the fun. (Of course, depending on the conference call, they don’t always thank me.)

Start meetings with small talk whenever possible: Similar to my previous approach to 1:1 meetings, my goal with team meetings was to get through them as efficiently as possible. But then, a management consultant that our CIO brought in suggested starting every meeting with 5 minutes of chitchat. I was dubious, but I gave it a shot. And I think it has improved the quality of our meetings.

Use video calls whenever possible: The same consultant suggested that we substitute video calls (Skype, etc.) for phone calls. Again, I was skeptical. But the return on investment has been immense. Looking someone in the eye (even through a camera) creates a better connection than just talking on the phone, and I get a better sense of nonverbal cues – to help, for example, see who’s on board with a plan and who has doubts.

Encourage home-based workers to get out of the house: Maybe they work from the public library or Starbucks once a week, or maybe they just go to the grocery store over lunch. Regardless, getting out and seeing other people helps put work problems in context and makes you more effective.

So yes, I love my remote team. But that remoteness can be a double-edged sword. To be successful as manager of a team of remote employees, you have to think about your management style and tailor it to the situation.