Today's Managers Must Be Connectors

By Shirley Davis and Lisa Horn, Co-Project Directors, SHRM’s Workplace Flexibility Initiative

The first joint SHRM and Families and Work Institute work-life conference is next week in Washington, D.C. The conference — Work-Life Focus: 2012 and Beyond/Workplace Effectiveness Strategies that Work — promises to provide senior HR professionals and other business leaders with the opportunity to explore effective and flexible workplace practices and the impact they have on business success and improved employee job satisfaction.

Kyra Cavanaugh, president of Life Meets Work in Park Ridge, Ill., will lead one of the conference’s Learning Labs — “Top 10 Manager Objections to Flex and How to Overcome Them.” 

We asked Cavanaugh to preview some of the advice that she’ll give business leaders during her Wednesday, Nov. 9, session. Here’s what she had to say:

Being Deliberate about Fostering Collaboration 

Managers have a lot of concerns when it comes to leading flexible work groups. Among them is keeping up a strong sense of team. In any workplace, managers are responsible for making sure employees have what they need to succeed.  And in a virtual work environment, one of the most important things they need is effective communication.

Above all, today’s new manager must be a connector.  If Sally in San Francisco doesn’t really know Bob in Boise, she won’t pick up the phone and call him. Suddenly the manager becomes the conduit through which all questions get answered and work grinds to a halt through this inevitable bottleneck. 

Figuring out how to build a team when employees don’t see each other every day (or ever) is perhaps the most important nut for any manager to crack. A well connected team will overcome a lot of challenges — unwieldy technology, loose expectations, conflict avoidance — that would knock other virtual teams flat on their faces.  

Admittedly, though, we lose a lot of the bottom-line advantages that come with virtual work if we have to spend every fourth Friday on a ropes course or a horseback riding “team experience.”  Some face-to-face time is ideal, but the trick is to foster collaboration without maxing out the travel budget.

A lucky few among us are natural connectors and inherently know how to get Sally and Bob chatting like old friends. The rest of us have to be more deliberate about fostering collaboration. 

A few quick tips:

  • Make time for small talk.Meetings are long enough as it is without burning through the first 15 minutes on personal chit-chat, right?  Not in a virtual environment. Spending time on personal conversation will be the new cost-of-business for dispersed teams.
  • Adapt every-day celebrations.No, Sally in San Francisco can’t join you for lunch. But you can send her a gift card to Starbucks or put her on speaker phone for a short group call before everyone starts eating. Remember to include your remote team members with a call or a thank-you gift whenever the rest of the team is celebrating a “We did it!” moment.
  • Model social media.Facebook didn’t rope in one in every 13 people worldwide by offering Farmville. Facebook became a sensation because it provided an easy way for remote friends and family to stay up-to-date on each other’s lives. You can do the same through the corporate intranet, project management software, a private team blog, or a purpose-built tool such as Yammer. 

The days of “managing by walking around” are nearly gone. In the new workplace, it’s not so much about getting the boss to talk to employees as it is about getting the employees to talk to each other.

For more ideas about how to overcome manager concerns, come see my presentation at FWI & SHRM’s Work-Life Focus: 2012 and Beyond conference. And if you're interested in testing out ways to help managers in your organization, consider participating in our research study.

The SHRM Blog does not accept solicitation for guest posts.

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