I Can’t See You

Rodney Robinson takes time to visit his 72 employees and talk to them face-to-face, which is sometimes a challenge considering they all work off-site. “You have to build a rapport with your first-line management,” says the 32-year-old senior principal of AMS Consulting, a Fairfax, Virginia-based IT company that builds and troubleshoots computer programs for the Navy and other organizations. Robinson supervises five principals who report to him regularly and who, in turn, oversee IT teams in the field, totaling about 100 people. “If those people know you’re consistent and fair, whether you’re there or away, it doesn’t make much difference,” he says.

Many businesses such as Robinson’s are relying more on off-site employees and managers to save money on office space and costly business trips. Communications technology, such as e-mail and video conferencing, has been driving much of this trend. “Companies also see it as [a way to] get people on board that they might not be able to get because they are in a particular geographic area and don’t want to relocate,” says Susan Mason, a principal at Vital Visions Consultants, a New York-based consulting firm. Mason, who teaches a course for the American Management Association called “Leading Virtual and Remote Teams,” has been working remotely for 13 years and cautions companies to offer more than up-to-date technology to accommodate off-site employees. “Some of the common mistakes are managers thinking that having really good technology is going to be the answer to getting good performance.”

Managers should be particularly sensitive to interpersonal communications. Robinson says he works hard to make sure his directives and expectations are clear to his staff. “E-mail isn’t good to convey emotion and voice mail isn’t good to start a discussion. The best way is one-on-one conversation,” says Robinson.

When employees and managers work in different locations, however, meeting in person is not always possible,” says Mareen Fisher, co-author of The Distance Manager: A Hands-On Guide to Managing Off-Site Employees and Virtual Teams (McGraw Hill; $24.95).

For companies comprised mainly of off-site employees, there are a number of challenges that may arise. The following expert advice is designed to meet those challenges head on:

Choose the right people. Not everyone is suited for working off-site. It requires a lot of self-discipline and time management skills. Many people are not even aware of their social interaction needs until they are actually working independently. Strong candidates may include those who have worked as freelancers and/or consultants.

Schedule face-to-face meetings. This is crucial to avoiding misunderstandings that can crop up through e-mail, where there is little room to express emotion or tone. “Just as we have diversity in the office, [the same is true] when we go remote, and unless we recognize those differences, they become overblown and much more serious,” says Mason.

Maintain open and frequent communication. “Managers and virtual workers just go with whatever [communication tool] is in front of them, and that’s most frequently e-mail. It’s often not a good choice,” says Mason. Managers, she says, should seek the most effective