Mitigating new managers' mistakes

From April to November 2001, the federal government's teleworker ranks jumped more than 35%, from 53,400 to 74,500 employees, according to the US Office of Personnel Management.

          From April to November 2001, the federal government's teleworker ranks jumped more than 35%, from 53,400 to 74,500 employees, according to the US Office of Personnel Management.

          Lost in those figures are the hundreds of first-time remote managers charged with overseeing them, says Mallie Burruss, a Work/Life Programme specialist for the US Office of Personnel Management (OPM).

          Trained in traditional management skills, most supervisors simply relied on time-tested contact techniques - email, phone calls and even meetings, brief on-site chats - to keep in touch with both on- and off-site workers. Though encouraged to use the federal government's website and online training, many managers adhered to their old practices.

          The result, Burruss says, is managers who "treat the teleworker just like someone in the office."

          As such, over time contact between manager and teleworker slips, and the latter wonders whether they're missing important meetings or even the social grapevine. Performance may slide, and teleworkers - fearing the loss of contact and the potential for disconnection from their peers and workplace - slip back into the traditional office.

          Teleworkers are not like in-office employees. Yet managers tend to treat them no differently than on-site workers, echoes Bill Morgenstern, vice president of human resources at Fortel in Fremont, California.

          The results of a survey conducted as part of Morgenstern's doctoral thesis on telework management confirms it. A majority of 240 manager respondents said their telecommuting employees receive less managerial attention, quality communications, training and support, and less recognition for a job well done than their in-office employees. They admitted that guidance, delegation of duties, advice and even rewards and recognition were weaker between manager and teleworker.

          What's more, many of Morgenstern's 422 teleworker respondents agreed, adding that poor communications left them feeling a lesser part of the team.

          "Good management makes you a productive contributor and a valued employee," he says.

          The solution? Companies have to institute more telework management training. Managers have to hone their communications skills. And teleworkers must stop being complacent and be willing to hold their managers' feet to the fire, Morgenstern says. Teleworkers should request recurring meetings - whether on-site or virtual - with their managers to discuss projects, meetings, schedules, expectations and even events of the day.

          For instance, if a manager forgot to tell a telework about an on-site meeting, the employee shouldn't hesitate to call the manager and request to be included via speakerphone in the future. If the manager calls once a week and the teleworker wants more, the latter should demand more contact.

          With virtual training and discussions with OPM telework programme specialists, managers' skills improve and teleworkers feel more comfortable working outside the office, Burruss says. If the manager isn't pushing contact or meeting the teleworkers' expectations, it's up to the teleworker to make it happen by scheduling meetings and prompting communications.

          At first, managers need to force themselves to communicate with their teleworkers, she says, adding, "Eventually, communication will go both ways."

          Zbar is an author and speaker on telework, free agency, and small or home office (SOHO) issues. His books include Safe@Home: Seven Keys to Home Office Security (FirstPublish, 2001) and Your Profitable Home Business Made E-Z (Made E-Z Products, 2000). Zbar works from home in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

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