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Managing a Satellite Staff

Strong relationships and clearly outlined expectations make off-site workers part of successful whole.

Mergers and acquisitions, plus flexible time and multiple work sites, have created the need for alternative work situations--and in many cases this means offsite teams. In the electronic age, employees at different sites can be connected by e-mail, fax, telephone and web conferencing. Whether your employees are working at a different plant, factory, office building or simply from home, addressing the issue of satellite staffs is vital to your business's success.

What type of employee is best suited for off-site work? Specifically, employees must be independent self-starters who do not need an on-site supervisor. They need to be assertive enough to speak up, state views and ask for assistance before situations become critical. In addition, they must be self-critical workers who can evaluate their own work and know when input from others is needed. They must voluntarily seek advice and counsel from others without fear of appearing inadequate, unconfident or unprofessional. And most importantly, they must be able to create their own work day and schedule without the structure of a formal, eight-hour day.

But what problems can arise in a satellite or home office? First, off-siters sometimes complain that they don't feel like part of the team, that an esprit de corps doesn't exist because of the physical separation between offices. Also, developing a rapport between supervisee and supervisor can be difficult since the latter isn't on-site. As a result, it's easy for milestones and deadlines to go unmet. Unsupervised work can become distracted, off-course and less than optimal. A related issue is "out of sight, out of mind": An off-siter's work may not be considered or valued as highly as that of on-siters. And finally, without an externally imposed structured day, work performance can suffer.

So what can you do to ensure that your offsite employees' productivity and success don't falter? First, you must clearly communicate your expectations of remote workers, including key milestones and deadlines. The milestones should be firm and short term to ensure that work is acceptable, timely and coordinated with on-site employees. Feedback on progress should be specific, measurable, timely and action-oriented. Above all, your remote workers should feel that they can easily seek out a supervisor for advice, counsel and input.

To further ensure accountability, goals must be clearly stated and written to guarantee agreement between all parties. An oft-stated truism applies here: "If you don't know where you're going, you'll probably end up somewhere else." Starting off on the wrong foot or in an inappropriate direction can spell disaster, especially when working at different sites. In addition to goals, agreed-upon standards and level of quality will help eliminate any doubt about what's required. Reporting relationships also should be outlined; each employee must clearly understand to whom he or she reports. Having the line of authority and responsibility clear greatly improves the intensity, effectiveness and quality of the reporting relationship.

The final aspect of off-site management to consider is communication. Often, e-mail is the easiest and the quickest way to communicate, but it can make expressing emotion difficult and can lead to misinterpretation. Someone who is always succinct in e-mails may come across as rude to a friendlier co-worker, while a good-natured joke might lose its intended humor and be read as an insult by the recipient.

The most effective means of sending and receiving messages is a combination of e-mail, faxes, regularly scheduled telephone conference calls, and video and web conferencing. The latter are particularly important since they contain the all-important aspect of seeing the people with whom you are speaking. While this visual component can help facilitate personal relationships, nothing can replace the quality of a face-to-face meeting. To maximize interpersonal interaction, create rapport between employees, and improve working and personal relationships, in-person meetings should be scheduled at least quarterly.

Dr. David G. Javitch is an organizational psychologist, leadership specialist, and President of Javitch Associates in Newton, Mass. Author of How to Achieve Power in Your Life, Javitch is in demand as a consultant for his skills in assessment, coaching, training and facilitating groups and retreats.

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