Managing Remote Workers Takes Technology and Savvy

The virtual work place is a happening, whether it’s a one-person shop based in an office suite, or a multinational corporation where a large percentage of a sales team works out of a home-based office.

Al Schmidt, CIO of Arch Chemical, headquartered in Norwalk, Conn., said the specialty chemical manufacturer has “a global workforce of 3,000 employees” with roughly half located overseas in 20 countries. In fact, he said the majority of their sales organization, both domestic and global, operates from home offices.

At any given time Kent Fernald, vice president of shared services for Court Square Data Group (CSDG) in Springfield, Mass., may be supervising a fifth of the 50 people in his department remotely, whether they are based in home or small rental offices. These are mainly projects managers and some technical staff working for this managed services consulting company that also provides IT solutions for companies in transition

Whether their employees number in the thousands or less than 100, CIOs of all types say they struggle to keep remote workers in the loop, feeling part of the team and struggle to use communication tools like email effectively.

“The biggest issue with remote employees is that unless there is a specific project or issue we are dealing with, there is hardly any communication. I think it has worked well with employees who have been with the company for a long period of time, allowing us to understand each other well,” said Sanjay Kucheria, president of IT Los Angeles-based, IT services company Trinus Crop.

His 200 employees most are based on the west coast, though there are employees on the east coast and in India, mainly working from home or client locations.

Even so, with distance and lack of face-to-face communication, all sorts of problems can be magnified. These CIOs, and others, agree that managing staff or subcontractors remotely takes a whole lot of skill, particularly with communication.

They offer the following thoughts and advice issues common to the virtual work place:

Beating the Distance: John Stevenson, former CIO for Sharp Electronics Corp. now owns JG Stevenson Associates, based in Dallas, Texas, and is a board member of the Society for Information Management (SIM) Foundation. In both roles, he deals with plenty of remote management issues and advocates meeting someone physically, face-to-face in the beginning whenever possible.

“If you can’t meet them, then try to do a video conference, or the phone if need be,” he said.

If the phone is the best tool you’ve got, he advises CIOs to keep “their ears open’ to learn as much as possible about the individual. Try to “put them in their comfort zone. If there were floods in their region, for example, ask how they coped. In those five minutes of conversation, you can learn so much about their communication and human relations style.”

Know When Technology Works: Arch Chemical’s Schmidt, who spent many years as an engineer at Bell Labs, learned a long time ago what work and what doesn’t. The nature of the meeting will determine the approach. For example, he said electronic tools work fine when the people know each other well, the issue is reoccurring, and the agenda is well defined.

“But for introductory meetings, or meetings where you are attempting to influence thinking, addressing personnel issues or when there could be conflict, then electronic tools don’t work so well,” he said.

At Trinus, sensitive issues are usually communicated via phone, at the very least, while “routine or procedural stuff is handled via email.”

Email is Double Edged: Who hasn’t regretted shipping off that email with a negative comment, let alone blasting it to a whole list of people by accident.