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How do I manage people remotely?

Dear Office-Politics,

I am about to assume a supervisory role in a relatively new company that is undergoing several changes as it grapples with its development and goals. The new CEO is installing her A-team, and while I am flattered to have been selected as a key member of that group I do have some concerns going in. I have never directly managed people before, and now I will be supervising as many as 5 people, all of whom are situated in other states. I’ve thought about requesting a trip to meet my staff early on, but my impression is that everyone else in the company is used to the geography and it might be considered odd if I don’t instantly show comfort with managing from a distance.

However, it is possible that more than one of my direct reports will occupy a single office, in which case they will be seeing each other all day long while only communicating with me via computer (instant messaging) and phone. I’m uneasy about how to take control in my new role and become a leader to people who have never met me, as well as the matter of how to have authority with a group who spend their day together and who may take their boss (me) less seriously because of my distance.

I appreciate any suggestions you can make. And if making the rounds in person is something you strongly recommend, then I would appreciate some guidance as to how to make the most of the single day I would likely be spending with them, so I can have an impact and establish the clear boundaries. I want to be likable but respected, and I need to set the stage for how I expect them to relate to me, otherwise I may find myself unable to “find” my staff during the day. It’s impossible to compel someone to reply to you if you don’t have the advantage of being able to walk over to their office!

Thank you,

Eager to Make it Work in NJ

erika andersen

Dear Eager to Make it Work,

First, let me congratulate you on your good natural management instincts: I think your automatic impulse to meet face-to-face with your folks is spot on. Even though we now have the technology to manage and work remotely, that doesn’t mean it’s not important to meet in person. We humans are physical creatures, and there’s something irreplaceable about sitting together, looking into each other’s eyes, and deciding how to be a team. As for others at the company thinking it’s odd — if you see the benefit to you, your team, and the organization, and can make the case to your CEO in a way that’s compelling to her, that’s what matters.

So, let me help you make the case:
You’re new to management, and you want to do an excellent job. Since you haven’t previously built a team, you want to make it as easy as possible for them and you to succeed: trying to do that only remotely, never meeting, is making it harder than it needs to be.

I’d take it even further – if budgets allow, I’d strongly recommend that you bring your folks together for a one or two-day team kick-off meeting at company headquarters (rather than wandering around to meet them). Many birds will fall to that stone:
1) it puts you in the strong position of bringing them to you;
2) they get to experience themselves, each other, and you as an intact team (a powerful experience that will carry through to them mostly NOT being together);
3) they’ll have a 3D experience of headquarters, which will most likely help them feel more a part of the whole;
4) you can make the needed agreements about how you’ll operate just once, collaboratively, with the whole team – they’ll know what everyone else is committing to do! I’ve often suggested that clients do this with new, distant teams, and it’s always yielded great results.

How do you Grow Great Employees?
Finally, in your letter, you’ve asked for help with how to approach managing these folks in a way that will work well for you and for them. At the risk of seeming embarrassingly self-referential, I’d suggest that you read my book, Growing Great Employees. One reason I wrote the book was to help folks just like you: people who are thrown into managing simply because they’re smart people and good performers, and are then magically expected to know how to do it, given little or no help, training, or support! It’s a practical handbook for the “what, why and how” of people management — I think you’d find it very helpful. (And for a distillation of the high points, you might want to check out this downloadable ebook.)

Thank you for writing to Office-Politics. Let us know how it goes!

Best of luck,

Erika Andersen, Author

Erika Andersen is the author of the newly released Growing Great Employees, which is a Kirkus Reviews recommended business book for 2007. Erika Andersen and her colleagues at Proteus International, the company she founded in 1990, offer practical approaches for individuals and organizations to clarify and move toward their hoped-for-future. Much of Erika’s recent work has focused on vision and strategy, executive coaching, and culture change. She has served as consultant and advisor to the CEOs and senior executives of corporations like MTV Networks, Molson Coors Brewing, Rainbow Media Holdings, Union Square Hospitality Group, and Comcast Corporation. Erika is an inaugural author of the Penguin Speakers Bureau, and she has been quoted in the New York Times, Industry Week, Investors’ Business daily, and Fortune.

  1. One Answer to “How do I manage people remotely?”

  2. Feedback from Eager to make it Work in NJ:

    I just read Erika’s reply to my question, and I want to thank her for her swift response and pointed remarks.

    It’s so nice to be supported, and I appreciate her time in considering my situation.

    By Letter-writer on Aug 15, 2007

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