How to Manage Employees When They're On the Road
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When you’re doing business in far-flung places and have a team of road warriors servicing clients around the country or around the world, it can be difficult to keep them productive, engaged and feeling like part of the team. In addition to carrying out their jobs and meeting their goals, frequent travelers must deal with the stress of the road and the feelings of being outliers – part of the company, but not in the same close-knit way that people who work together in an office might be.
“There are some additional issues you need to consider for traveling employees, and keeping them feeling supported and valued can take some effort,” says Paula Caligiuri, Ph.D., professor of global leadership, international business and strategy and Northeastern University's D'Amore-McKim School of Business in Boston, Mass. She suggests these nuances when managing people who spend a lot of time on the road.
Define the job well. It may seem obvious that your employees need to know what is – and isn’t – their job, but you can never be too clear in defining roles and expectations, Caligiuri says. Problems arise when employees try to take on too much, affecting overall customer satisfaction or productivity. For example, if a salesperson encounters a technical issue with the equipment he or she is selling and attempts to fix it, doing so could lead to delays on other sales calls as well as an unhappy customer. Give the employee if-then scenarios to understand when it’s time to call in a supervisor, customer service representatives, or other company members.
“You need to let them know when it’s time to ask for help. Talk to them about what the expectation for asking a supervisor for assistance would be an in office setting and show them how that applies on the road. Also, let them know it’s okay to ask for help,” Caligiuri says.
Be clear about communication. Nothing fosters mistrust on both sides faster than delayed or unclear communication expectations. Caligiuri suggests setting guidelines about response times, such as a “two-hour rule” for response time to any telephone call, text message, or email message. Then, set boundaries for those guidelines, as well – an email received at 10 p.m. doesn’t have to be returned until the following morning. She also recommends setting regular communication times as needed, such as speaking every Monday, Wednesday and Friday at a certain time. Those regular calls can help the employee feel connected to the office and give them a venue to voice any concerns or issues.
Focus on outcomes instead of process. When your employees are constantly on the road, you need to detach from how they do things and focus on how well they do things, Caligiuri says. Sometimes, the two are related, but often they are not. You can drive yourself crazy worrying about how they organize appointments or refine their presentations, but if the end result is good, you might need to lighten up a little.
Insist on face time. Nothing cements bonds like meeting face-to-face. You can see expressions and mannerisms that aren’t possible over the phone or through email or text messages, Caligiuri says. And while videoconferencing can be a handy substitute, note your form: Look into the camera as much as you look at the person’s face on the screen. By looking at the camera, it appears that you’re looking the person in the eye while focusing on the face on the screen looks as if you’re gazing downward, which can make you seem untrustworthy.
Provide on-the-road support. Your employees should have a safety net in case something happens on the road. Make sure your medical insurance will cover them if they get in an accident in a different state or foreign country. Ensure they have transportation assistance, such as roadside assistance or a travel agency to manage flights, whenever they might need it. And always provide them with a way to get in touch with key managers in case of emergency, she says.