We keep hearing about all the advantages of remote workers — people who stay in touch via the myriad communications options now available. But the arrangement carries some serious dangers for managers.
Everything works great, writes Jesse Herman in Stanford Business magazine, until “performance starts to slip. A missed forecast here, a supply chain surprise there” … tensions mount, and “even the most talented managers are baffled that nobody saw it coming.”
Herman offers several scenarios to illustrate that face time between managers and the rank-and-file is critical to organizational success. A couple of examples:
The silent plant
As a VP of operations for an automotive parts manufacturer, Herman made a visit to one of the company’s factories in Mexico. He found it “eerily quiet.”
“I heard the hiss of compressed air bleeding from the lines and the intermittent clicking of electrical contacts before meeting workers who were waiting idly in the cafeteria for critical components to arrive.
“Reassurances I had received … about how we were solving component shortage problems no longer seemed comforting as I tried to explain the situation to the staff.”
Herman summoned the company’s materials manager to the facility. “After working two weeks in the plant and with local officials, he came to understand the impact of historical scheduling processes on this new, remote plant. Once he lived it, the problems were obvious, and a solution was quick to follow.”
Lesson: A lot of times, you’ve got to be there to understand what’s going on.
The phone has its limitations
Even the most sophisticated communications devices “obscure our senses and often deaden our intuitions,” Herman writes.
He cites the case of the general manager of a subsidiary of the auto parts company, who had been hailed as a hero for saving the company from bankruptcy several years before.
“But the improvement had leveled off, and despite the transfer of several historically profitable lines into his operation, performance was declining,” said Herman.
But from thousands of miles away, no one could tell why. All that fancy communications equipment wasn’t allowing the real story to get through.
The problem? The GM’s “gruff, authoritarian” style — effective when the division was in crisis mode — had created a company culture of general paralysis — everyone was afraid to make changes without prior OK from top management.
“It took being on site to understand the problem and implement a solution,” said Herman.
Lessons for middle managers
Although Herman’s anecdotes deal with upper-management issues, the stories should resonate with all managers who have to supervise remote employees.
The takeaway: It’s not enough to just deal with offsite staff through the normal electronic suspects — phone, email, IMs, Skype and all the rest.
No matter how far technology takes us, human beings need contact with other human beings. There’s simply no substitute for face time.