How do I manage people remotely?
June 9, 2009 11:35 PM   Subscribe

How do you manage a small team remotely? Particular tips when one of them seems to underperform consistently? [subtext, help me ace my interview!] Latest published work and your own experience please!

I'm interviewing for a promotion in late June to step up and manage a group of my peers. At the moment we all do the same job just in different parts of the country working remotely. I've managed a small office in the past but never managed people remotely (although it's the job I do so I have a solid idea of what we're meant to be but how we do it has always been very flexible) I've had problems in the past with my nearest geographical colleague who's underperformance has impacted to the extent I've had to find ways of working around her. I've passed the issues up to our Head of Department after unsucessfully trying to resolve them with the colleague. Four sector leads are now being offered. All I know about the interview is it will be 45 minutes of "management scenarios" . With my history with this colleague it is inevitable that managing underperformers will come up. In fact this may be a reason I do not get promoted simply because they may be afraid she'll challenge any definitive decision I make on her employment due to our past history (although I've always been very careful to be as supportive as possible and document issues).

So Mefites, can you point me in the direction of readings on managing underperformers especially remotely? There are really good management readings in past AskMe's that I will faithfully go through, but nothing that deals with this.

Do you have personal experience to offer? Interesting solutions?
thanks in advance...
posted by Wilder to Work & Money (4 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
I've had to deal with underperformers a few times (in IT). At best, some people just need closer supervision. Check in with them daily. Make sure their work is getting done, both to make sure they're not thrashing, and to head off schedule problems before they get serious. (Once you can be surprised that someone worked a month without getting anything done; after that you need to be watching them.)

If someone is doing unfamiliar work, some mentoring or training may help. Or reassign them to something they're better at.

Particularly tricky was a collegue who was working about half as productively as they used to. We talked to the person several times without much improvement; finally they solved the problem by quitting.

Sometimes there doesn't seem to be any solution but to get rid of the person.
posted by zompist at 3:39 AM on June 10, 2009

I've had problems in the past with my nearest geographical colleague who's underperformance has impacted to the extent I've had to find ways of working around her.

I currently manage a team of six, including two people in opposite corners of the country who I've actually never met. Obviously, your quote above about working around the underperformer won't fly as a manager, so let's boil why it won't down to it's core:

Your potential employees are your organization's investment, and it's your job to get a return on that investment, or provide an alternative solution.

The most valuable advice I ever received when I transitioned from worker bee to person of responsibility was to protect your P&L at all costs. For me, my profitability has a direct tie to how efficient and effective my team is at executing their roles. If I were in your shoes, I would work on being able to articulate to these higher-ups how you anticipate protecting that P&L, maximizing profitability, and how you're going to use the tools in your toolbox (or fewer tools at a lower cost) to get there.

In my scenario, I found it helpful to think through how your operational activities fit in to a larger philosophical picture, and then to deconstruct/rebuild those ideas in some different ways to turn your ability to be flexible into more of a set of process controls that are built with an 80/20 standard/flexible sort of model.

I'm essentially responsible for taking a very specific piece of a company's spend, centralizing it to my office and standardizing the way we do it. In my world, the operational activity is executing the purchasing transaction as a middleman, but where that fits into a larger philosophy is that our activities as a middleman collectively "create a commodity purchase experience in a non-commodity channel."

For me, it was taking that larger idea and reframing operational activities against that, rather than an abstract notion of "how can we do our jobs better?" that allowed me to sing the tune in the interview that the higher-ups wanted to hear.

So what does this mean for an underperformer? It means that your ideas, for which you'll have built the right high-level support, become the operational playbook - 80%+ standardized to your expectations. You'll have to find some way to put identifiable/trackable metrics in place that allow you to identify who's executing to your expectations and who's not. With these metrics, you can note that building an underperformer into a satisfactory player is about identifying the gaps, clearly restating those expectations to the employee, and setting a benchmark and a deadline for when you need that goal reached.

As long as you have the right ideas and the right higher-level support, and as long as you're being fair and consistent with your team, what you're doing to protect the company's P&L is identifying inefficiencies and making recommendations to solve those problems (e.g., releasing the employee).

Forget the touchy-feely idea that you have to manage people. You're managing ideas and expectations, and setting specific and identifiable goals and benchmarks to track who's able to keep pace and add value to your bottom line. That's all they're going to want to hear.
posted by GamblingBlues at 4:43 AM on June 10, 2009

Nthing forget the touchy feely stuff wrt underperformer. My DH works in a very large IT shop with one person who does virtually nothing, takes vacations/sick days whenever, and has gotten away with it for years under a series of managers, none of whom has ever tackled the problem seriously. Everyone has always just accepted things as they are and worked around him. Don't ask me why as no one else gets this type of treatment. I used to work there, and have seen it for myself. The result has been a gradual erosion in performance from the other staff who deeply resent him and have stopped caring. It's spread to others outside his unit who work with him. It's a question of fairness. The only way to force this person to do anything is to monitor his progress daily and to make him sign in and out of the office in the morning, at lunch, and in the evening. This routine was institued by one manager who let it slip after about a month, and he went back to his old ways. To him, it's a game where he scores points off management and fellow workers every time he manages to shift the work to someone else or take time off without penalty. He actually brags about it. I suggest you document everything as it will give you and your higher management cover should you need to fire/demote/discipline this person.

Bottom line: what you do/don't do about your underperformer will affect your whole team and how you are perceived as a manager. Protect yourself and your other staff. (And, yes, I'd have his head on a platter if I could.)
posted by x46 at 8:13 AM on June 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

this is really useful stuff guys, all of it worthy of a best answer!
posted by Wilder at 9:13 AM on June 14, 2009

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