Managing A Distributed Staff

Hiring an employee in a different office and time zone is no longer the unchartered challenge it once was. Many nonprofits juggle employees, freelancers and board members across the country. However, it does require a different kind of supervision and communication to work well.

For those of you just embarking on the process, or who may be struggling with off-campus employee relationships, here are some tips and tools for managing remotely:

Set expectations up front

Given how busy we all are, taking the time to write down and communicate expectations for an employee and the job function – two separate things – can seem like a chore. But doing so is essential to long-term success.  In-office staff have the office context to help understand expectations; out-of-office workers have far less context. It’s incumbent on the manager to establish expectations with all employees from day one, of course, but it’s particularly important to communicate them to telecommuting staff.

Formalize a communications plan

Chances are you already have a regular staff meeting for your organization. Don’t let that be the only regular time you set aside to talk to remote staff. Trying to absorb what is going on at the end of a speakerphone is difficult, and providing input can feel daunting. Put yourself in the shoes of the remote employee, and consider using a combination of written and live, regularly scheduled communications.

Standardize tools

There are many tools that facilitate communication, track tasks, share work products, and increase the ability to collaborate. We use Dropbox to share files; Google Docs to create, share and collaborate on documents; Basecamp to share project calendars and manage team tasks; and Gmail to facilitate instant messaging and manage our company email. There are good alternatives to each of these. The issue is not which tools you use, but rather establishing a standardized set across your organization to increase efficiency and reduce miscommunications and redundancy.

Measure effectiveness early and often

Part of the added burden and responsibility of having remote employees is the need to formalize the feedback process. Setting goals and expectations up front enables you toestablish a regular review and measurement system. This will provide both of you with the feedback you’ll need to establish and gauge effectiveness.

Find a way to meet in person

With the understanding that budgets and time may not allow this to happen on a regular basis, I am a big believer that face-time (not the Apple product, but actual human to human contact) is still the best way to establish rapport and build business culture. While not essential for day-to-day operations, ultimately it is the human factor that motivates, builds and drives, which is especially important when running and working at mission-driven organizations.