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Q&A With Sara Sutton Fell, Part II: Managing Flex Workers

Flex work is still new ground for many companies, and transitioning to a virtual workforce requires new policies and guidelines. However, most of the guidelines tend to focus on the telecommuter, not on the manager (in-office or otherwise) who can determine whether a virtual team is a success or failure.

The CEO of FlexJobs and Founder of the 1 Million for Work Flexibility movement, Sara Sutton Fell, knows all too well how important strong managers are to a virtual workforce. As founder of a job board for workplace flexibility, head of a remote team and thought leader on flex work, she is an advocate for educating and transforming all employees, including upper management, into better leaders for telecommuting.

In Part Two of our Q&A series with Sara, she gives her biggest lessons for virtual managers of flex workers:

1. Virtual Teams Need Better Management

Q: What do you think many companies are missing in their remote worker policy and/or training?

A: A clear managerial strategy for remote workers. Managing a remote team is different than managing an in-office one. You can’t “see” people doing their work, so you have to focus more on results and outcomes, and less on people being at their desks. Management needs to focus on communication skills, proactive outreach, regular check-ins and what measurements will really show how a remote worker is doing. In the case of Yahoo, where managers didn’t even realize some remote workers were still working for the company, poor management was clearly the cause of their problems. Companies should set up remote worker managerial “best practices” and review and update them regularly.

Q: What new skills or training do managers and supervisors need to supervise a virtual team?

A: Proactive outreach and communication with workers, the ability to analyze outcomes and results rather than hours worked, and meeting management to ensure regular meetings are productive and that they capture and convey the most important info for everyone involved.

2. Managing Flex Work Means Managing Company Culture

Q: One reason some companies stray from flex work is the idea that it hurts company culture. How can flex work (as it is or in the future) actually support and help mold company culture?

A: The good news is that flex work doesn’t hurt company culture – unless it’s allowed to go unmanaged and uncared for. Flexible work can actually help support and mold company culture by holding the employee up as one of the most important pieces of any company’s culture. Supporting flexible work means you support your employees’ lives and want them to succeed both at work and personally. Companies offering flexible work need to proactively decide upon and create a company culture that is engaging, communicative and based on trust and responsibility. Trust and responsibility are key, because employers need to trust flexible workers, and the workers in turn need to show that they’re able to be responsible with that trust. It’s a symbiotic, mutually beneficial relationship.

3. Time Management Has a New Meaning

Q: Recently, our survey on the 40-hour work week revealed that most workers put in hours beyond 40 hours every week. Do you think flex work contributes to the trend in working longer hours?

A: I’ve seen several studies that show people who work from home tend to work more hours than their in-office counterparts. Sometimes it’s because they use their would-be commute time to work, and sometimes it’s because it can be difficult to break away from “the office” when it’s in your home. My feeling is that flexible work options like remote work should be beneficial to the employee and the company, and everyone involved needs to be cognizant of what’s expected in terms of hours and scheduling.

Q: What’s your favorite productivity tip right now for teleworkers?

A: Closed-door time. Because there are so many ways to communicate with your remote colleagues (phone, email, text, IM, message boards, virtual offices, web conferences, etc.), it can be hard to shut all that off and concentrate, but it’s essential. If we were in an office, you’d know by a “close door” that someone is busy. Virtually, I try to have a “closed door” day, or a few hours at least, once a week in order to work on larger projects, do some brainstorming or cross things off my to-do list. I try not to check email, answer the phone or respond to anything non-urgent during that time, and it’s hugely beneficial to productivity.

Still in the initial stages of deploying flex work? Check out our SlideShare presentation on the types of flex work to get started, and look out for our final interview with Sutton Fell on the future of flex work.

Missed it? Read part one in our series with Sutton Fell, “3 Misconceptions About Flex Work.”

About Ashley Speagle

Ashley Speagle is a Florida-born, Georgia-raised communications specialist, couch movie critic, dream interpreter, acrophobic adventure seeker, outdoors enthusiast, and easy-going introvert.

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