The Trick to Managing Remote Employees

When it comes to managing remote workers, out of sight shouldn't mean out of mind, new research shows.

A University of Illinois study revealed that those in charge of leading employees who work outside the office — either at home or abroad — need to change their leadership style.

Illinois business professor Ravi Gajendran said managers can mitigate the isolation of virtual employees by taking a relationship-based approach to their leadership style. While companies typically use a top-down, "one-to-many" leadership style that treats all employees similarly and often interchangeably, the study shows they might find more success handling remote workers by using a "leader-member-exchange" method.

This approach involves cultivating a personalized relationship characterized by trust, loyalty, developmental feedback and support between the team leader and member, Gajendran said.

"The traditional model of leadership is, 'I'm the leader; you're my team members, and I'm going to articulate my vision for how things should be,'" Gajendran said. "What we find is that a personalized leadership strategy characterized by the leader-member exchange has even stronger effects when the workers are globally distributed."

Gajendran said leadership of virtual teams is tough because it lacks the face-to-face interaction that happens with employees who are in the office every day. For example, if a boss can’t see his or her remote employees, it is difficult for him or her to determine if they are energized.

"As a leader, then, you don't know whether you need to motivate them or give them their space," he said. "And team members also are missing out on the social aspects of work: team space, team dinners and team drinks."

The study found that a personal touch is required to bridge that gap. Specifically, Gajendran argues that leaders need more one-on-one interaction with their virtual team members.

"Leadership needs to be uniquely tailored to the team members rather than dictated from on high," he said. "It's about building a relationship with each member, and that requires slightly more effort than it would in a normal workplace setting."

The research also discovered that in addition to cultivating one-on-one interaction, leaders must be strong advocates for their remote employees' work.

Gajendran said a big danger in having virtual teams is that employees will feel their contributions aren't noticed or valued.

"You don't want team members to feel as though they're just sending their work out into a vacuum," he said. "That's why leaders matter — they have to make those invisible workers visible, and you can do that by creating that sense of involvement and inclusion."

The study, co-written by Pennsylvania State University's Aparna Joshi, is scheduled to appear in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Applied Psychology.

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