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Nan Kalke.

Nan Kalke supervises five staff members across the state of Minnesota from her office on the Twin Cities campus in St. Paul.

Managing at a distance

By Anita Rios and DeeAnne Bonebright

From Brief, July 14, 2004

Changes in technology, flexible work schedules, and remote work teams--these are some of the realities that have altered the ways that supervisors need to manage in today's workplace. Old strategies of "managing by walking around" and monitoring face time don't work when employees or teams are working in different locations.

Nan Kalke, director of University of Minnesota's Statewide Child Welfare Training Projects, is a strong proponent of managing from a distance, whether for programmatic or personal needs. Kalke manages a team of five program managers across the state. She admits that it's more convenient to walk down the hall to talk to someone on her staff, but she says managing from a distance is worth the effort. It has forced her to clearly define how tasks and activities are accomplished and reported.

Workshop: Supervising From a Distance
Wednesday, October 27

Register for this workshop offered by the Center for Human Resource Development. For more information, see /adp/supv/lab.html.

"I have come to believe strongly that the more flexibility one has, the more accountable you must be," says Kalke. Increased accountability has helped her staff anticipate problems and respond quickly.

In eight years of supervising program managers at a distance, the greatest challenge Kalke has found is orienting a new person to their position. For other staff members, e-mail messages are the primary and preferred communication method, but for staff at a distance, she compensates by traveling to the site and making many more phone calls.

Kalke and her managers pay a lot of attention to new-staff orientation. They identify a primary resource person for the new hire. They also form a network of support based on each manager's area of expertise.

"There is a high level of trust in this type of arrangement," says Lorna Wiens, of Staples, one of the people who works with Kalke. "E-mail is a technology that has helped us maintain communications. Conference calls are also a great tool for discussing hot topics and not meeting face to face."

Communication, independence, and strong work relationships

Communication is critical, says Jayne Hager Dee, director of the University of Minnesota Extension Service Regional Center at Farmington. She uses phones, cell phones, e-mail, and face-to-face meetings to communicate with staff in four counties. She copies people on any pertinent correspondence so everyone knows what everyone else is working on.

Managing for results

Managing for results is critical when employees are in different locations, according to John D. Adams, director of the organizational systems Ph.D. program at Saybrook Graduate School. Adams urges managers to hold regular progress reviews with clearly defined deliverables, deadlines, and results.

Examples of what clear goals might include are:
--These are your five projects.
--Here are the expected outcomes for each project.
--These are the decisions you can make on your own.
--We will hold weekly team meetings and monthly one-on-ones to review progress and solve problems.
--Here are my telephone and pager numbers--call me when you need me.

Adams, John D (2001) "A Primer: Managing Dispersed Work Effectively." OD Practitioner, Vol. 33, No.1. /publications.html

"Since I do it, now my staff is in the habit of copying me as well," Dee says. "It's important that everyone stays in the loop."

Dee says she has learned the importance of allowing employees to work independently. No two county offices are alike, she points out, so figuring out what works in that place requires knowledge of program history and client needs.

"Assuming that the right person is in the job," Dee says, "it offers them an opportunity to creatively problem-solve and create solutions that work for that situation."

Building strong working relationships based on mutual trust and respect is another key to successfully managing from a distance.

"They need to know I will drop everything and assist them if they need it," says Dee. In return, staff members need to take more responsibility for problem-solving and decision-making.

As a result, the Extension Service has staff who are satisfied with their jobs, feel they have the authority to make decisions, and produce quality work.

"They satisfy me, the client, and themselves," she says. "What a deal!"

Anita Rios coordinates the Work/Life Initiative and DeeAnne Bonebright directs the Supervisory Training Program in the Center for Human Resource Development.

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