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Remote Management: When the Workplace Isn't Really a Place at All

We hear all the time that managers need to have the "right mind set" to manage remotely, but what exactly is that? How does the concept of being a manager change when you have no control over where the work takes place? What do you do when the workplace isn't really a place at all?

Sitting in a coffee shop yesterday, I was watching the guy at the next table sip his mochalattevanillachaiwhatever and pound away on his laptop. This got me wondering: is he working? Is he slacking off? Who cares?

Well, a lot of people care. The manager cares: she's responsible for the results, after all. The employing company obviously cares, because they're paying for something to happen that will drive their business in the right direction, and the employee cares. People want to do good work in a way that makes sense to them and allows them to be at their best.

In his book, "Becoming a Successful Manager: Powerful Tools for Making a Smooth Transition to Managing a Team," JR (Bob, to the anointed) Parkinson talks about creating a "virtual community." These communities are based on trust,which is easier said than done. Here are some of his suggestions for both remote workers and their managers.

Basically, people will do their best work if they are empowered to do what needs to be done however it needs to be done, even if that means sitting in a noisy coffeehouse rather than a perfectly functional desk somewhere.

According to Parkinson, this empowerment comes from knowing the parameters of their work:

  • What needs to be done
  • When it needs to be done
  • Who is responsible for getting it done
  • Why it needs to be done
  • How success will be measured
Where's the manager's responsibility in all this? Their (okay, our) jobs are to create the environment where people can do their best work and focus on the results, not the process. In other words:
  • Clarify and specify what needs to be done
  • Encourage (not stress about) flexibility in how it gets done
  • Allow for cultural and generational differences
  • Incorporate (which means you need to know) the strengths of all team members
  • Let goals dictate which technology they use, not the other way around
  • Provide continuous verification and validation of goals, processes and quality
This more relaxed, hands off approach is difficult for many managers, and even some workers who have thrived in more traditional work environments but can result in better results- as well as calls to IT to clean caffeinated beverages out of the keyboard.

photo by flickr user tomalen, CC 2.0

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