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Practical advice for federal leaders on managing people, processes and projects.

How to Manage Remotely


Much has been written about getting managers on board with telework. They often are advised on how to handle requests to work from home, supervise employees who aren’t in the office and engage teleworkers with the rest of their team. But what if it is the manager who wants to work remotely while others stay put? Based on the literature that is available, supervising from afar can be a successful arrangement with the right planning, execution and small changes in leadership style.

Before deciding where to work, a manager should take an honest inventory of how the office is running. If the group already is struggling to remain energized, in synch and on task, or if morale is low, going remote might not be the best choice. It is incumbent on the manager to determine what will be best for the group, putting aside personal preferences and the conveniences that teleworking could offer. If the office is running smoothly and employees are displaying satisfaction and competence without excessive supervision, then managers have more options.

If you do decide to work remotely, make it a priority to be available to employees. Supervising from home might actually require greater effort to proactively stay engaged with employees, especially those facing issues.

Respond to emails quickly, make time for phone calls, and consider an interoffice instant messaging system that shows your availability and unavailability. If you will be out of contact for any significant chunk of time, let your employees know, or set up a temporary out of office message that says when you will get back. For managers who work almost exclusively from a desk, these things are all easy enough. But if your job has you in many meetings, traveling or otherwise indisposed for large periods of time, you might consider setting up “office hours” a few times a week when your employees know you will be available to discuss ongoing issues.

If you will be working remotely all or almost all the time, it is crucial to establish regular meeting times with the entire team. Depending on the size of the group and the range of projects, monthly, weekly or even daily digital meetings might be appropriate. These meetings should be face to face whenever possible, or via videoconference. While most tasks can be achieved by phone and email, showing your face at regular intervals and seeing how employees are interacting is tremendously beneficial.

Remote managers also must stay especially organized. Managers always have to juggle large and small issues, but the small ones may be particularly easy to forget or put on the back burner when you are at home and won’t be running into employees who might jog your memory. Every request or issue brought to your attention must be put on a to-do list and dealt with in a timely manner, lest employees feel they’re being ignored and forgotten while you work from home.

With communications primarily occurring by email and phone, it is important for teleworking managers to watch their tone. Employees put a lot of stock in being able to read your expressions and body language. Say only what you mean, with no sarcasm or innuendo, and be sure to be specific about expectations in all your communications.

It also is crucial to build recognition into your communications with employees. Informal pats on the back come naturally in an office setting, but employees can feel unsure of their performance or their manager’s satisfaction when they don’t receive those regular, casual encouragements. Each remote manager has his or her own style of reward and recognition -- whatever yours, make sure you provide feedback regularly enough that employees don’t suffer long periods of uncertainty.

Whether you are working from home, or leading a group scattered across the country, you can have success and manage a happy, productive team from afar with a few simple adjustments.

Elizabeth Newell covered management, human resources and contracting at Government Executive for three years.

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