The Way We Work
November 5, 2013 by Julia Camenisch

Management. It's an art, understanding how to connect with varying personalities. But it's also a documented science—the juggling of not just people but also schedules, budgets and projects.

The herculean task of being an effective manager is not for those faint of heart. The traditional business playbook would argue that it's not for those out of the office, either.

However, two established organizations think otherwise. Both Teach for America and the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) are empowering managers to work off-site. They're giving them the tools, training and flexibility to lead their teams remotely–and reaping benefits both corporately and through individual employee job satisfaction.

Remote management logistics

The USPTO has been leveraging the productivity gains of remote work since 1997. But only in recent years has the government agency extended their telework initiative to include managers.

The change occurred as a result of retention concerns. According to Danette Campbell, senior telework advisor at USPTO, shutting managers out of the telework program wasn't working. Management positions were seen as less desirable; people preferred production-level positions simply because of the flexible work arrangements.

The agency ran a pilot program with a small group of front-line managers who were already interacting with and supervising remote workers. When this proved successful, the telework option was extended to other managerial positions. Campbell says that 81 percent of the agency's managers have made the move to the home office.

As might be expected with an organization that employs more than 9,000 workers, USPTO has had plenty of logistical and security issues to address. Campbell says that all employees use a standardized laptop, issued by the office. They connect to the Patent and Trademark Office network using a VPN with encryption, to ensure that data is kept secure.

Another key to keeping the productivity wheels turning smoothly for off-site supervisors is comprehensive training. The agency makes sure managers are well-versed in using the communication and collaboration tools available to them. They also receive training in security best practices.

The result has been far better than hoped. "Participants feel their overall accessibility to staff has improved, and that they have more time and flexibility since they are no longer commuting and spending time on the road," Campbell said. "Some second-level managers have reported that their off-site managers are generally more available when working remotely."

Remote management style

At Teach for America, 12 percent of staff members work remotely—including Kathleen Fujawa. She's also in a management role. As the senior managing director of human assets, she spends a lot of time interacting with her team of thirteen—with much of that oversight accomplished from her home office outside of Boston.

Fujawa began managing remotely almost four years ago. She observes that, while some aspects of management aren't affected by location, the job takes significantly more investment when it's off-site. "If in-office management is level 101, remote management is level 501. You have to be better at everything," she laughed.

She's dealt with management challenges in several areas. "I'm not seeing the work with my eyes, like I would if I sat next to someone. And I can't just stop by and chat. There's a relationship thing that you miss and there's the 'observing the work' piece that you miss."

Those challenges have provided an impetus for Fujawa to focus on relationship-building and strong communication within her team. For example, she meets with different team members face to face throughout the year. "I think any good remote management relationship starts with a good in-person relationship," Fujawa said.

She's also established weekly team meetings, via video conferencing, to help the team connect and share information. Fujawa believes that an integral part of those virtual gatherings is sharing the events of life with each other. "We make time to just talk about kids, pets, family, etc. Having that open, purposeful space makes a difference."

Recognizing the importance of making herself available, Fujawa has established several policies to keep communication flowing. "I have weekly office hours when my team knows I won't have any calls or meetings so that I am available for them. People also have access to my calendar so they can see when I’m busy. We make a lot of use of IM. They can instant message me with a quick question or ask to call me."

In spite of the challenges, Fujawa loves working remotely, saying that it fits her strengths and allows her to spend more time with her family. "Becoming a remote manager was absolutely a good switch for me. I'm so fortunate to work for an organization that believes very strongly in results and allows room for variance on how the work gets done."

The US Patent and Trade Office and Teach for America are proving the value of allowing managers to telework. Do you also manage your team virtually? If so, share your thoughts in the comments section on what it takes to be a successful remote supervisor.

Julia Camenisch

Contributing Author

Julia Camenisch is a freelance technology and business journalist. She also works as an editor and copywriter for a wide range of clients, including national magazines, small businesses and nonprofit organizations. Julia brings to oDesk a passion for empowering small businesses through the innovative use of technology.