Long Distance Managing

Changes the Way Supervisors

Get work done through Others


            A manager responsible for individuals located in various locations outside the office succeeds only if trust and expectations are developed properly.  This is the message of an essay from the December 3 New York Times business section, “When Work Time isn’t Face Time.”   HR professionals at organizations with such management responsibilities need to adjust for the lack of face-to-face interaction of traditional work environments.

            Although employers have stationed employees such as salesmen and over-the- road drivers outside headquarters since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, there is an increasing use today of a distance work model that eliminates traditional oversight.  Firms are tasking bosses to supervise personnel who may never come in contact with them in the here and now.  Telecommuting numbers, according to the Times article, reflect an increasingly spread out workforce:  an estimated 13 million American workers will telecommute more than eight hours a week in 2008, up from 6 million in 2000.

            In the distance managing mode the time clock and the 8-5 measurement of a work day matter less than task accomplishment by the time expected.  A manager of workers located around the country has to establish a degree of trust with each of them that requires manager training up front, and the avoidance of excessive spot checks.  For example, e mails that flood the subordinate and require immediate responses – for the purpose of making sure the subordinate is not goofing off – are considered counter-productive.  But phone calls, e mails, or text messaging as needed take on a special significance in the distance managing world because there is no personal interaction. Plus, instant electronic access raises expectations of how rapidly the recipient should answer. Instant communication can be a manipulative tool, or a rational use of supervisory power. “Successful long-distance managers learn to stop treating their employees like wayward second-graders,” the Times article observes, “instead setting clear expectations and focusing on the results.”    

            What is unclear is the lack of that intangible element of supervising that is traditionally a pillar of bossing people: observing them to make sure the job is getting done, and done right.  Because personal observation of how people work, how they interact, and how they apply their minds, is impossible at a distance (even through videoconferencing), certain types of work, and certain types of workers, don’t belong in the distance managing environment.

            But for those that do, employment law issues present themselves in unusual ways, e.g., request for accommodation to work in a home office, FMLA requests, and overtime requests.  More than ever, written agreements addressing work hours and work conditions need to be in place for all such workers.