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Continuing the Conversation on Telework: Is Remote Work Too Remote?

Andrew Krzmarzick commented on my blog post Answering Joshua Millsapps’ Question: Is remote work, too remote? by saying OPM surveys reveal that supervisors feel the biggest barrier to telework adoption is the, “Need to learn new skills for managing a remote workforce.” As I had referenced in my post my success in learning new skills when I was a manager of remote employees, Andrew asked that I expand on that topic. The Cliff’s Notes of my answer is that success requires a combination of new skills and employing the right tools. In addition to my experiences, I have asked a number of my colleagues who manage remote workers for their additional advice.

Below I share my experiences and feedback from my colleague Carl Knerr. I will summarize some of the available tools and Carl and I will reinforce how these tools can be used in combination with best practice management skills to help the supervisor of the remote worker overcome some of the obstacles to adoption.

First, may I say that my philosophy on supervising people derives from advice I was given as a young manager. I was told, “Never confuse people in motion with work being accomplished.” I say this with tongue in cheek, but truthfully for me, focus has always been primarily on results.

This is not to say that activities are unimportant. Measuring results means meeting milestones. Between milestones activities are important indicators of progress. Measuring activities of the remote workers requires tools. Below I review a number of tools applicable to different situations. Not every tool fits every circumstance. For instance, quality monitoring may be applicable to coaching people whose primary focus is interacting with clients on the phone. For others, tools such as enterprise grade social media may be more applicable. Think of the following not as a proscription, but as a toolbox. I spent an early part of my work years as a tradesman. We used to say that 90 percent of the job was choosing the right tool.

For supervisors of remote workers whose primary function is to work with customers or clients over the phone a basic tool is the status indicator. A supervisor managing people whether local or remote can employ a telephone or a softphone application with a basic indication, such as an array of LEDs, that tells when workers are active on their office phones. Combining this basic information with reports available from a Call Accounting System gives the supervisor real time information and context. For more advanced situations such as home based call center workers, more sophisticated tools are available.

The supervisors of call center workers who are in home situations use Call Management Systems to provide real time and historical information for quality and performance management. The information from these systems can be displayed in many different formats including real time readouts on the display of a digital or VoIP phone. Also Desktop Wallboard applications can present the information scrolling across computer screens. Both the supervisor and all of the call workers can share this information. Statistics including the number of callers who are waiting to be answered, how long the callers have been waiting, the average speed at which callers are being answered and a host of other data points may be displayed. The supervisor can use real time and historical reports with graphs, charts and other display formats that come in both prepackaged and ad hoc varieties. The real time reports provide powerful tools to manage staffing levels and workflows while historical reports both inform those decisions as well as provide data feeding performance improvement and evaluations.

Where appropriate and with the proper administrative precautions in place, supervisors may also use features of a communications system such as Service Observing. Service Observing allows supervisors to listen to in-progress calls for the purposes of quality monitoring. Supervisors may also barge into a call taking over for a call worker who is struggling, under duress or who requests help. Features allowing the ability to whisper coaching instructions into the earpiece of a workers handset give supervisors a way to provide support that is non-invasive to the relationship between the call taker and the client they are serving.

Other tools include call loggers and Workforce Optimization (WFO) tools. Basic WFO packages provide for the recording and quality monitoring of voice calls. There is no difference in the way these systems work whether call workers are local or remote. Especially in a fast paced call center environments, where large numbers of transactions are processed each day it is critical for supervisors be a part of the workflow. These tools allow the manager to participate with their call workers in the processes of delivering high-quality results through the management of work volumes, handling escalations, intervening when necessary and other collaborative processes aimed at performance improvements.

In the contact center where multiple mediums of communications are managed, more advanced WFO tools capture recordings of voice, text messages, web browser co-browsing and other media that can produce a holistic picture for the manager. The consolidation of all the elements of a contact record can be aggregated and used to provide comprehensive documentation of activities and results. Managers can use this holistic information for real time coaching, training, periodic performance evaluations and other aspects of personnel management.

For a more generalist populations of remote workers, tools including instant messaging and other newer communications applications allow supervisors to interact with workers in real time. These applications often provide “presence” which lets a supervisor know if someone is idle or in action. Granular detail including whether someone is talking on their phone, whether they are typing or involved in other activities is shown in real time. Enterprise grade social networking is also a new powerful tool to maintain a sense of community for a distributed workforce and to power collaborative work across the organization. (For a recent discussion on the use of these tools please see: The Collaborative Effects of Social Media in Business.)

More advanced tools including Speech Analytics automate the processes of quality monitoring. Software today can listen for phrases, tones or other indications such as those of displeasure or stress and provide tools for management interactions. Other benefits of speech analytics include providing managers ways to check for compliance with industry regulations, organizational security requirements and other issues critical to organizational performance and regulatory adherence.

These are but a few examples of the tools that are available. The point is that there are many ways to empower a supervisor to proactively manage workers whether they are sitting in a cubical row or distributed across the planet. Other than not being able to walk over and tap someone on the shoulder, the quality of the supervision is limited only by the ability of the individual to take advantage of the tools.

Next I’ll bring in the advice of some of my colleagues. In this post I will reference my conversation with Carl Knerr, Director of Serviceability Engineering at Avaya. In future posts I’ll talk about advice from others including Rebecca Kay Phelps who has had a long history of working with organizations with distributed workforces.

Carl responded to my request for examples of management skills by saying that he has actually never managed people other than remotely. He said, “Even when I worked in an office, my employees were in different locations.” Carl continued that regularly scheduled one-on-one conversations are very important. He said that managers need to make this part of their regular formal routine. “It is too easy to get busy with work so much so that you might not make the time to actually talk to your employees,” Carl said. He makes sure all of his people know they can always call whenever they need to, and that, “These formal meetings are an insurance policy to make sure that we’ll definitely talk on a regular basis.”

Carl also said that it is important to the relationship to make sure that the employees know, “We don’t have to talk just ‘work’.” In essence it is more of a, “Mandatory water-cooler conversation time,” Carl said.

Carl went on to say that as a manager of mangers who are also remotely located, “I do ‘skip levels’ for everyone in my organization every other month. Other tools I use are to create an Outlook contact for all my direct reports with a picture of them. When I get emails and phone calls from them, I see their face.” He admits that this is clearly, not the same as face-to-face, “But it helps.”

Carl said that he has recently begun using video conferencing. He said, “This is relatively new to me, but I do find that it can be a big help to increase the feeling of a ‘normal’ relationship.” Also, Instant Messaging is key tool. Carl said, “I’ve always asked my direct reports to be sure they are on IM during working hours. I can’t walk to their office to ask a question and IM seems to work quite well for that in a distance situation.” Thanks to Carl for his advice.

Above I have provided a number of concrete examples of tools and management techniques to help the manager of remote workers feel more comfortable. I’m not saying that it is easy at first. It takes work. It takes trust. It requires obtaining new skills. For some it may even mean an attitudinal adjustment.

The bottom line however is that we can no longer afford not to take advantage of the savings and benefits that remote work affords. We waste way too much fossil fuel, we dump way too much carbon into the atmosphere and we impose way too many burdens on those employees for whom travel to an office is not a critical requirement of the job.

Carl has written more about his experiences in his blog on Avaya.com Why Virtual Office Might Be Right for You.

I hope that you have found this helpful.


Dear Readers:

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Warmest regards,
Guy W. Clinch


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Kelley Coyner

In the late nineties, I work with my agency to establish one of the first telecommuting programs for lawyers. I was the head of agency and needed to persuade both HR and the chief counsel to try it. I thought the best argument was to test whether we could increase productivity and quality. An impediment to both in the office are interuptions both social and work related. Our objective was to maintain or improve productive in regulatory writing and brief writing. It worked and had the side benefit of improving morale of the employees.

Now fifteen years later and many years of telecommuting myself and managing telecommuting workers, I still find clarity on productivity metrics and communication about them to fundamental to successful management of telecommuters.

I also agree that regular, routine communication with employees and colleagues and bosses is vital. You should never rely on email and chat alone. Phone communication is important and occassion face to face discussion is helpful.

A key skill set for all is effective use of scheduling tools, teleconferencing, and webconferencing.

Thanks for the post.


P.S. I like the suggestion about having photos for email communications.

Colleen Ayers

Loved Carl’s comment about “always” remotely supervising employees. Even when I’m in the office, I don’t actually SEE my supervisor on a daily basis, because she’s on the other end of the building, or may be away on travel. There are some days that I’m only out of my cubicle to grab lunch. I think if supervisors think about how much time they actually interact with people even in the office, many will see there’s not a huge difference between that and telework.