Communication: Remote Supervision – Tips

Supervision is a constant yet always changing mechanism for making sure the job gets done.  It’s constant because some form of guidance and regulation will always be needed to ensure quality work is being performed.  It’s always changing due to variations of the workforce or modifications within the organization.  Remote employees, those employees who office away from their normal duty station or are separated from their immediate supervisor, are becoming more and more abundant.  You may also hear them referred to as out-stationed, teleworking, or telecommuting.  Whatever the case may be, supervisors will have to adapt to this new environment to continue to safeguard the goals of the mission statement.  Here are some tips to help those supervisors who now must incorporate remote supervision into their management repertoire:

  • Pick good candidates– Select employees who fit the mold for telework. Make sure there is a history of trust built up with the employee and the employee has steadily delivered even with low maintenance from the supervisor.  This person should have the appropriate skills to be able to work independently.  Brand new hires are rarely a wise option for telework.
  • Build the relationship– The cornerstone of Collaborative Coaching is to build relationships with your employees. If a sturdy relationship is already in place, remote supervision will be a much smoother process.  Think about any long-distance relationship you have.  The stronger the bond, the more likely it will withstand the obstacles put in the way.  As much as you and your employee feel comfortable sharing, get to know each other on a personal level.
  • Work on the relationship you’ve built– Work relationships are just like any other relationship. It takes work.  You must continue to foster it so it doesn’t become stagnant.  Continue to connect with the employee on an informal basis just to see how things are going or to shoot the breeze.  Ask about weekend plans, a significant other, kids, pets, etc.  When an employee is away from their normal office or immediate supervisor, they miss out on the normal “water cooler” talk that happens daily.  An employee can start to feel left out or isolated when their supervisor and group are no longer down the hall or right beside them.
  • Set expectations– Sometimes even the best of employees can lose focus when they’re out from under the wing of their direct supervisor. From the beginning, be very clear on what is to be done, how it is to be done, when it is to be done and then stick to it.  If you want the employee to check-in with you at certain times, don’t allow the employee to skip them.  One missed check-in turns into two, three, and so on.  If you want cases, reports, or other work turned in a certain way or by a certain time, let the employee know.  How quickly do you expect the employee to respond to a voicemail or e-mail from you or from a client?  Everything from behavior, duties, and time-frames, to what situations require your attention should all be covered.  Once these expectations are set, the process flows without consciously thinking about it.
  • Be proactive– Brief the employee on what to do in the event of certain situations. What are the things the employee used to do in person but can’t now due to the distance between the two of you?  How will they turn in a weekly copy of their CWA or other paperwork for review?  Who can they give the paperwork to or contact if you’re not available?  What if their home computer isn’t functioning properly?  Remote supervision requires extra planning for the normal day to day happenings as well as those unforeseen events.  You and the employee will want to ask, and resolve, a lot of “what if” questions at the beginning.
  • Collaborative Coaching/Gemba– Distance does make this more difficult but not impossible. One idea is your remote employee could be Gemba’d and coached by another supervisor in the county they are housed and the information sent back to you as the direct supervisor.  Or, a supervisor where your employee is housed could do the Gemba, send the results to you, and allow you to hold the coaching session the next time you’re able to meet face-to-face with the employee.  Speaking of face-to-face, you could also plan a visit to the out-stationed employee’s location and perform the Gemba and coaching session yourself.  Making regular visits or even spending an entire day at the employee’s location is a good idea anyway.  It allows you to see their work environment firsthand and get a working knowledge of the office dynamics and any challenges they are facing.  If face-to-face meetings are rare, they must be maximized when they actually do occur to get the most value out of them. For more tips, click the following links for Remote Coaching and Virtual Gembas.
  • Keep the employee involved– Make sure the employee is included in all group communications, even if it’s informal news. When possible, have your employee come into the office for regular meetings and social gatherings so they still know and feel they’re a part of the team and the office culture.  When it’s deserved, give public praise and acknowledgement of remote employees and their accomplishments.  This allows the remote employee to be recognized while at the same time letting their co-workers know they’re pulling their weight.
  • Watch your language– Pay attention to how you refer to employees that are out-stationed or teleworking. Try not to use words or phrases such as “them,” “they,” “those workers,” “we,” or “us” to distinguish between in-office employees and remote employees.  If your language indicates remote employees as being separate from the rest of the group, then your other employees will begin to think and feel that way as well.  This can create an “us versus them” mentality that damages group cohesiveness.
  • Use telework as a perk– With the limited ability to give raises or promotions, the option to telework could be offered as an incentive. If an employee is seriously thinking about leaving the agency but is worth their weight in gold, it’s better to give some freedom than to take the chance on finding an equal replacement through the hiring process.  However, teleworkers should know the new perk doesn’t set them apart from anyone else.  Their job performance should still be evaluated using the same measurements as everyone else in the group.
  • Re-evaluate as necessary– Just because a plan seems to be going smooth from your end, it doesn’t mean your employee feels exactly the same. When much of the communication with your remote employee is via phone calls and e-mails, you miss out on the body language and other nonverbal cues they may be sending.  Remote supervision is a moving target that needs to be dialed in on a continuous basis.  Every so often, assess if the current situation is still working for you and the employee.  Ask the employee what’s working well and what’s not working so well and adjust as necessary.

Like many things in management, remote supervision should not be taken with a “one size fits all” approach.  There won’t be just one way that’s superior to the way somebody else is doing it.  You and the individual employee need to work together to come up with a blueprint that fits both of your needs and still gets the job done in the end.  Whatever your final plan may be, trust, respect, open communication, and consistency will be the trademarks of remote supervision.

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