Q: Several of my staff now work at home for most of the week and I am finding it difficult to manage them. It's not that I don't trust them to be working, but I'm not sure how to be a virtual manager. I suppose they'll call me if they have a problem, but since I can no longer manage by walking about, how can I encourage peak performance?
A: In the knowledge economy, virtual working is becoming increasingly common, but best practice in handling this activity has yet to be established. What is clear is that some people really take to working outside the office. They find their ability to do certain types of work - reading and writing reports and proposals, for example - much easier to do when there are fewer interruptions and distractions. This, and the fact they are not wasting time on their commute, often increases their productivity. They tend to enjoy the sense of autonomy that home working gives them - and sometimes it makes the time spent back in the office sweeter. The experience can bring a new lease of life to someone who was beginning to find the daily routine a chore.
But virtual working doesn't suit everyone. For many, going in to work provides an important element of social contact. This is particularly true for extroverts, who get their energy from interacting with other people, so having access to others is an important source of stimulation. And for others, the workplace can be a welcome escape from the pressures of home life.
Unfortunately, not everyone who asks for flexible working is aware of how much they get from simply being in the office. They discover they don't enjoy working on their own and feel isolated and lacking in energy. Some will feel embarrassed to admit they'd prefer to return to their previous working pattern, but it's worth checking how this new arrangement is suiting them.
All of this adds a new layer of complication for you, the manager. Your preferred style of management, by having close but informal contact with your reports and being around to praise, support and sometimes direct, is no longer available and you will need to find an effective substitute.
To establish what's right for you, it's worth looking at parallels elsewhere. For example, for sales executives on the road, this kind of distance working is nothing new and there are well-established processes to ensure things run smoothly. Sales people usually have targets to meet - for the number of calls they are expected to make and the sales income they should be generating - and a method of relaying their activity back to HQ, so it's relatively easy for their managers to keep track of how they are performing. They also have regular check-in times, by phone or in person, with their bosses, where issues can be raised and progress can be reviewed.
I suspect the work done by the people you manage hasn't previously been so tightly controlled and to swap to a more closely monitored style would be counter-cultural. Nevertheless, it seems to me that it would be worth adopting two elements from the typical sales scenario: establishing shared expectations and agreeing a regular method of formal contact. Where previously, objectives and KPIs have been set annually and reviewed only every six or 12 months, the new situation may call for the agreement of some shorter term markers for progress which will be of value to both parties. The virtual workers will also need acknowledgement that their (largely unseen) efforts are bearing fruit.
You will both need to have a method of knowing when things are going off the rails and some management interaction is required. Whereas, previously, formal set pieces of management such as appraisals and development reviews were regularly supplemented with informal contact, over a coffee or just in passing, you will need to create some occasions for this more casual interaction. Sometimes this will have to be by phone, though, without the visual triggers to help you gauge how the other person is feeling, you may find it harder to have an empathetic interaction. What I would recommend is arranging regular events, social as well as work-related, that allow members of this now more scattered team to get together and regain their sense that, although geographically separated, they are still all on the same side, travelling in the same direction.
Miranda Kennett is an independent coach. If you have a problem you'd like her to tackle, email: firstname.lastname@example.org.