Virtual work environments are becoming increasingly common. Employees may no longer sit down the aisle, across the hall or even in the same country. Managers find themselves in reporting relationships that cross time zones and country or continent borders. Team members’ 6 a.m. alarms may ring hours before or after the manager grabs that first cup of coffee.
Regardless of location, career development continues to be one of the most important factors in the employee engagement equation. Engaging geographically dispersed direct reports in development dialogue is essential to ongoing professional growth and maximizing performance.
So, can a manager simply shift those solid, face-to-face time-tested coaching skills to virtual environments and be done with it? Yes and no. Virtual employees need the same openness, candid feedback, future focus, flexible perspective and action orientation from a manager as employees in traditional settings. But how they get those things has changed.
The Development Partnership
A partnership between the employee, the manager and the organization is fundamental to any successful development relationship. Each partner has an important role. Employees own the decisions and direction, managers guide and coach, and organizations provide resources and tools. The virtual workplace, however, requires some shifts in how these roles are managed.
Employees still own their career decisions, which are determined by their aspirations, needs and drive. But virtual assignments require greater levels of initiative from employees. Employees must assume more responsibility for connecting to local and regional professional networks — networks the manager may not be familiar with.
The casual, informal updates that occur when an employee sees the manager in the hallway or lobby don’t exist for the virtual employee, so ensuring regular and frequent connections is important. Virtual employees run an even greater risk of dropping out of sight if they fail to pursue the development coaching they need. Employees need to reach out to the manager informally as well as during formal conversations. A quick email or instant message to pass along a comment or ask a question can help to build a virtual connection.
The good news is the pool of potential coaches has expanded. In addition to the manager, employees can — and should — get valuable coaching, guidance and feedback from colleagues, clients and customers. Employees today are not only “on” LinkedIn, they “are” linked in to every possible source of information about industry trends, emerging technology and the business climate. Employees should be encouraged to take advantage of those sources.
Managers have primary accountability for coaching and guiding employee development. They are responsible for development planning discussions, which are typically held at least once a year. Many employee surveys, however, report if these discussions occur at all, they are often vague and not particularly helpful. For remote employees, skipping these discussions or executing them poorly can be particularly frustrating. For these discussions to be meaningful, managers need to prepare. This doesn’t mean having all the answers or a carefully laid out career path to share. It means being able to guide the conversations to learn how they can help employees create effective development plans and identify beneficial learning opportunities.
The organization’s role is to provide resources: structure, processes and tools. Access is key in the virtual workplace. If employees at headquarters have top of the line learning experiences while remote workers are left with the occasional podcast or webinar, it’s clear which group is valued and which is not. The learning arsenals for the two groups don’t need to be identical, but they must be equivalent in terms of the opportunity for professional growth.
How the organization perceives virtual roles also impacts the success of virtual employees. Leaders at all levels must understand the complexity of virtual roles and, through their communication and actions, demonstrate that they recognize that contributions from remote workers are as significant as those from employees in traditional settings, and in some ways more difficult.
It’s All About the Connection
Technology enables organizations to build globally dispersed teams, but it also can create barriers and limit equal access to resources. Something as simple as a form that does not translate easily, or as complex and deep as deciphering cultural norms that frown on or prevent social networking, can create confusion and dissatisfaction. Communicating the expectations of each role throughout the organization provides a common understanding and conveys a commitment to build an inclusive, development-focused workplace.
Internal and external infrastructure and policy concerns aside, trust is often the bottom line when building an effective, mutually beneficial virtual coaching relationship. As The Work Design Collaborative LLC describes it in the white paper “Managing a Remote Workforce: Proven Practices from Successful Leaders,” “As trite as it may sound, the most critical skill in a distributed work environment is the ability to establish trust.” In a career coaching relationship where personal aspirations and hopes are shared, the absence of trust ensures failure. Managers who shift from defining employees’ jobs in terms of hours worked, schedules and tasks to a mindset where employees’ roles are about the work that needs to get done and the results realized build confidence and send a message that they trust employees to be accountable.
Structure is essential to the virtual development conversation. A straightforward process that answers the following five questions can provide the framework managers and direct reports need to stay on track:
1. What are the roles of the manager and the employee?
2. How often will formal development conversations take place and who will initiate them?
3. How will interim, informal development conversations happen?
4. What technology will be used to connect?
5. How will progress be tracked?
This agreement goes beyond a contractual exchange. Charlene Li, author of Open Leadership, describes the agreements between employees and managers as covenants rather than contracts to emphasize the importance of commitment.
Achieving a high level of personal presence in a virtual relationship is fundamental to create a powerful connection. Personal presence without the usual visual cues depends on both individuals using high levels of listening skills and attending to pace and tone of voice during conversations. Too often skill building preparation for managers and their virtual direct reports focuses solely on technology. Investments in learning options that will strengthen communication skills — including active listening and how to ask powerful questions in a virtual world — will realize more effective and engaging long-term relationships.
Of course, tools are important — groupware for Internet and intranet collaboration, virtual reality simulated workspaces, Web networking to provide formal and informal employee connections, document sharing software to support virtual teamwork — but they’re not the centerpiece of a virtual coaching mandate. Managers and employees need to determine what tools best support their relationship. If technology is too complicated, creates more work or even is so cool it’s distracting, it can get in the way of the relationship. Further, what works for one employee may not work for others. Flexibility is important to maximize coaching results.
The Manager’s Role
Development-minded managers are curious. They ask questions, and not only do they listen to what their employees say in response, they listen to the meaning behind the answers. Managers who learn as much as possible about the virtual employee’s environment, cultural norms, physical space and colleagues are better prepared to relate to the employee’s developmental needs.
Managers should be open about the employee’s professional reputation in the organization at home and abroad, being honest about development that may be necessary to correct weaknesses or to promote strengths. The lack of informal, unplanned interactions makes clear, candid, formal and informal feedback even more important to maximize performance.
Virtual employees also need a lens for the future of the organization and industry and how that future can impact their career decisions. The virtual workplace has made it difficult for managers to be fully aware of available growth opportunities in multiple regions or sites despite efforts to tap into their own networks of connections. Remote employees should be encouraged to create their own regional networks and find mentors to support their growth.
That does not mean virtual employees should be left to their own devices. Recall the tenets of the development partnership; each party has a role to play, as does the organization. Managers should actively provide links to the resources, experiences and people that will result in meaningful development. Development-minded managers don’t let employees — traditional or virtual — become disconnected. They spend time identifying or designing learning experiences specific to each employee’s goals. Then they prepare their employees for those experiences, debriefing them or identifying feedback providers who work in closer proximity to reinforce the partnership trust and facilitate progress against the development plan.
Organizations that are committed to creating a development culture ensure learning occurs at all levels from bottom to top in all locations. Whether sitting on the 50th floor of headquarters in Chicago or a home office in Beijing, employees have talent to offer and capabilities to share. Successful organizations find ways to tap into and develop virtual talent pools across time, distance and cultural boundaries.
Lindy Williams is a senior consultant, and Beverly Kaye is founder and CEO of Career Systems International and co-author of Love ‘em or Lose ‘em: Getting Good People to Stay. They can be reached at editor@CLOmedia.com.