Telecommuting: Why Men and Women Work Differently

Last Updated Jul 5, 2010 6:45 AM EDT

Everybody knows that men and women think differently in a lot of ways. But do those differences matter when it comes to working remotely and managing remote teams? According to Sally Helgesen, it matters a lot. Managers who don't appreciate those distances can do themselves, their companies and those employees a great disservice.

Sally is the author of "The Female-Vision: Women's Real Power at Work". She cites scientific studies that show how a woman's brain functions in different ways than a man's. How they differ is important, particularly for managers who might not be aware of these conflicting world views or assign value to behaviors that don't get the desired results.

According to Helgesen, one major difference is that women tend to be highly skilled multitaskers, while men are able to concentrate on one thing for more concentrated periods. Neuroscientific research confirms this, and women often take pride in their ability to handle a ton of things at once. This is a plus and a minus, for women and for those who manage them. "I believe it's a core reason that women can tend to over-commit. Those who manage women remotely can benefit from understanding this, especially since excessive multi-tasking can lead to burnout and inhibit creative thought," she says. Managers need to watch out for signs that someone is stressed out. On the flip side, a man's ability to focus on one thing for a long time can be seen as beneficial, but it can also lead to tunnel vision and an insensitivity to people and behavior not seen as "mission critical". There's also a tendency to believe that the amount of time spent on something equals better results, something that is often not true as short bursts of concentration tend to bear better fruit than agonizing over something for extended periods.

One major difference between the sexes that really impacts managers is that women are (in general) more likely to speak up if they're unhappy about their immediate circumstances and environment, while men tend to suffer in silence. (Helgesen's term for it is " men will suck it up and tolerate a lot more for a lot longer"). This doesn't mean that the woman's complaints are without merit, or that men don't experience the same misery and are equally unhappy. But if a woman mentions that something is wrong, she might be seen as a complainer by her male manager. Conversely, a female manager might take a man's stoicism as being uncommunicative or not proactively trying to improve a situation. Such value judgments can seriously harm a working relationship.

Without the daily contact and familiarity of working in the same location, it can often be difficult for managers to really understand what's going on with their team. One person's laserlike focus is another person's antisocial moping. A willingness to abide short term discomfort for long-term goal needs to be balanced with a willingness to change and improve the current situation.

Understanding how gender impacts behavior is only one more reason good leaders take the time to get to know their people and look at results, not at specific behavior that can be misinterpreted.

For more of this conversation, listen to a full interview with Sally Helgesen on the Cranky Middle Manager Show.