One of my coaching clients could easily serve as the poster boy for remote management. In addition to having an on-site group in Atlanta, "Jeff" supervises engineers in California, Mexico and India. Managing people across a 13-hour time zone span not only creates long days, but also poses tremendous communication challenges. After his promotion, Jeff quickly realized that this would not be a routine management assignment.
As technology improves and business becomes more global, an increasing number of people find themselves either working or managing remotely. So here are six potential pitfalls to avoid when you're telecommuting.
1. Don't skip the introductions. Unless you make a special effort to get acquainted, your remote colleagues will always seem like relative strangers. When we know someone personally, the relationship tends to be stronger and more collaborative, so take time to learn about your faraway co-workers. Check them out on Facebook or LinkedIn, initiate a get-acquainted email exchange, or chat about your backgrounds on the phone. The better you know them, the more you will understand their perspective.
For managers: You can't effectively manage someone who doesn't know you, so meet all your employees in person at least once, even if it means traveling overseas. One face-to-face encounter can make a tremendous difference in their ability to relate to you as their manager.
2. Avoid cultural blunders. When working with colleagues from other countries, you may be puzzled by unfamiliar and unexpected communication patterns or work habits. So before collaborating with someone from a different part of the world, take time to learn about their culture. Many websites provide information about specific business practices in various countries. If you deal with many different cultures, the Kiss, Bow, or Shake Hands series by Terri Morrison and Wayne Conway will be a useful reference. Finally, remember that even in your own country, there may be regional differences.
For managers: One common cultural variable is the expected reaction to people in authority. If you are supervising employees from other countries, find out if their culture encourages them to be more deferential or assertive. Otherwise, you may misinterpret their reactions.
3. Remember that assumptions can be dangerous. Although everyone needs to know what their manager wants, clear expectations are even more important for telecommuters, who tend to have less informal communication with their bosses. If your supervisor fails to be specific about deliverables and deadlines, take the initiative to clarify them. Otherwise, you may be surprised when someone expresses disappointment with your work.
For managers: When a project or task is important, avoid misunderstandings by putting expectations in writing. Clearly state what each person is expected to produce and when the work is to be completed.
4. Don't be a phantom employee. As the old saying goes, "out of sight, out of mind." If you seldom see your manager or colleagues, you must insure that you are not overlooked or forgotten. Make a concerted effort to share information, provide progress updates and ask for feedback. Use social media to stay connected with your team members. And while email is incredibly useful, remember that written communication can quickly escalate workplace conflicts. When disagreements arise, recognize when it's time to talk, not write.
For managers: Develop the habit of "chatting" with remote employees through texts and emails. Insure that your group has appropriate online meeting tools and knows how to use them effectively. If some people are on-site with you, be sure that the telecommuters have equal opportunities to participate in discussions.
5. Never become an obstacle. Colleagues who don't see you on a daily basis may worry about your ability to meet schedules and deadlines. But if you are consistently reliable and dependable, they will soon stop fretting. When you know that delays may occur, be sure to give everyone advance warning.
For managers: Waiting to receive decisions or information can be extremely frustrating for remote employees. They can't drop by your office to check, and they may be reluctant to send nagging emails. So when you make commitments, keep them. If you can't, explain why not.
6. Avoid hiring "square pegs." Not everyone is suited for remote work, so managers must hire the right people for these assignments. Look for applicants who are comfortable working independently, have good communication skills and do not require frequent interaction with others.
Although long-distance relationships present challenges, the ability to work remotely has greatly increased hiring options for managers and job opportunities for employees. As long as you recognize the need to develop some new habits, it can be an interesting and rewarding way to work.
Commentary by Marie McIntyre, a career coach (www.yourofficecoach.com) and the author of "Secrets to Winning at Office Politics." Follow her on Twitter @officecoach.