Mind of the Manager

What works and what doesn't in the workplace

The Challenges of Remote Management

Distance and anonymity can lead to managerial inefficiency.

Sometimes it seems you can learn more about management from sitting at a bar than from reading a textbook.

I was recently sitting at a bar at a resort with my wife, and began to chat with the man sitting next to me. Enjoying a micro-brew, he was a middle-aged, well-dressed, outgoing sort. Turns out he works in management – in fact, a type of management I’ve long found interesting but have had relatively little experience with: remote management. For a Fortune 100 global computer manufacturer.

Full disclosure: I know what I don’t know, and my own background is roughly a quarter century in a traditional management setting: large corporate headquarters with employees, departments, divisions nearby – some occasional remote operations, but most management could be done easily in person with a quick walk down a corridor. Remote management has a whole different set of logistics and challenges.

Which my new friend at the bar began to describe.

An “Arms-Length” Environment – He manages IT projects, and – most interestingly to me – has never met, in person, either the members of his team or his own manager. His team members are scattered across Europe and South America, and his own manager is in Europe. A good amount of his time is spent, not surprisingly, coordinating meetings across vastly different time zones.

He knows of course who his team members are, but has very little idea of what they are like personally. Most interaction is via email.

Is that difficult, I asked, not really having a clear sense of the individual personalities you’re managing?

It is, he said, it certainly doesn’t make things easier.

Given the distances and time zones, much of his time is spent waiting for email responses. He estimates that about half of his time is spent waiting – part of the multi-continent communication process.

Is that inefficient? I asked. It felt to me like a lot of wasted down-time time.

Don’t get me wrong, he answered, I’m very glad to have a job and I work diligently at it, but yes, there’s definitely a lot of inefficiency built into this kind of management.

Remote work arrangements are of course only increasing. An October 2012 report based on 2010 U.S. Census Bureau data, showed that roughly 7% of U.S. employees were working exclusively remotely, and about 10% were working at least one day a week at home.

While I fully realize the account I’ve described above is only one person’s experience (based on a highly global operation) and I don’t want to over-generalize from it, it does give a window into the challenges of the remote-management environment: in particular the lack of personal contact, the waiting, the down time, etc. But it also did give me a more sympathetic perspective on the challenges Marissa Mayer was attempting to address at Yahoo with her controversial reining in of the remote work environment.

Not to say I’m opposed to remote work arrangements, because I’m not… but no doubt there’s inherent potential for inefficiency, and these arrangements require an especially keen level of objective setting and results-focus, especially when a team is as widely dispersed as the one described here.

 Call me old-school (guilty as charged), but there just seems to me something not quite right about a management environment in which you’ve never met any of your team members or your own manager.

Thoughts from readers? I’d be interested to hear in particular from individuals who’ve managed in remote work environments.

This aricle first appeared at Forbes.com.

*     *     *

You can follow Victor on Twitter for management-related news, tips and articles.

Victor Lipman recently retired from the corporate world after 25 years with one of America's largest life insurance companies. He writes about management from a psychological perspective.

more...

Subscribe to Mind of the Manager

Current Issue

Let It Go!

It can take a radical reboot to get past old hurts and injustices.