Avoiding remote manager mistakes

As a manager, Mike Wolf rarely teleworked. But in May 2000, when he and his wife decided to move from Scottsdale, Arizona, to Redmond, Washington, the network research director at Cahners In-Stat/MDR knew he'd have to sell the idea of remote management to the firm.

How did Wolf convince them he'd make a good remote manager and that he'd keep his team motivated and productive?

He tapped, and built upon, his existing well of trust. He'd been with the company for two years, rising through the ranks. He had close working relationships with his boss and six reports, most of whom already teleworked a day or more each week. Moreover, Wolf was an independent worker, one who didn't need the corporate environment to stay productive.

But even with Wolf's reputation and achievements to draw on, he faced "a high-risk situation," says Charlie Grantham, with the Institute for the Study of Distributed Work, a consultancy in Windsor, California. "Change must be nourished."

If the remote manager is new to the company, the risk of failure is much greater.

"The newbie [must] spend some face-to-face time with key folks in the new company," Grantham says. "Trust is the social glue that holds the work team together, and trust comes out of those interactions."

Before the new manager heads home, he should designate an in-office liaison to keep him updated on social events happening in the office. Use these conversations to learn the firm's corporate culture and organizational values. These could be technical expertise, efficiency, interaction among teams or earning kudos from clients. Mastering the firm's subtle workings helps foster key relationships, build additional trust and ensure a good fit.

"You need to spend 20 percent more time just doing this," Grantham says. "It won't just happen by itself."

Wolf says teleworking has its highs and lows. Two years in, he enjoys the solitude to work productively, and spending more time with his wife and infant son. But he misses the impromptu chats with co-workers and feels awkward during conference calls. "It's hard when you're the only one not there," he says.

But it's a feeling Wolf's come to live with. He knows the team respects him, and they work well with him away from the office.

"Things were already clicking, and then I moved," he says. "We're autonomous. I call myself the Seattle office."

Jeff 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).

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