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Virtual and Project Management Expert: Writer, Speaker, Educator. Author of Managing Without Walls and Fundamentals of Technology Management. President of Garton Consulting Group.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Are Most Managers Still Obsessed With Time?

I received an email a few weeks ago from someone who had attended a webinar I presented on managing virtual employees.  I was pleased that he enjoyed the webinar and that he felt the information would be very useful to him in his role as a virtual manager. I was perplexed by a question he included in his email.  He wanted my advice on how to deal with team members who were stopping work earlier than 5pm on Fridays and presumably “slacking off”.  It was an interesting question and one that I have pondered many times since.  It was interesting not because it required a lot of thought to answer, but because it revealed the discomfort this manager felt at not being able to control his virtual employees’ work hours.

For many years the corporate world has been focused on “results-based” performance management.  No longer is an employee evaluated and rewarded for how many hours he or she spends at the office, but for what he or she actually achieves.  What a great concept.  The sad truth is that though performance reviews are being written with the appropriate language to indicate that the manager is evaluating performance based on results and not on effort, in reality the manager still perceives success or failure based on the time the employee spends on each task. The manager feels he has some “control” over his team when he can see employees in the workplace, knows what time they arrive, what time they leave, and can monitor time spent on things like lunch breaks or going to doctors appointments. This control, this knowledge of how employees spend their time, gives the manager a sense of security.  He is comfortable feeling that he has his finger on the pulse of his organization.  In actuality, the manager doesn’t know what his team members are doing most of the time.  On the phone a lot?  It could be the person spends all day chatting with family and friends.  Spending a lot of time on the computer?  He could be looking so earnest because he is working on a really important report or he may, in fact, spend the first half of each day trading stocks.  Starts early and works late?  Is he not capable of finishing his assignments on time like the rest of the team?  Is he making a lot of mistakes and working late to fix them before anyone notices?  Or is he spending so much time trading stocks that he has to work late to catch up on his real work?  Unless the manager is tracking and evaluating based on results he will never know who is working and who is “slacking off”.  Remember, you will feel a pulse even if the person is asleep!

How many managers working in “results-based” environments are truly comfortable evaluating performance based purely on results?  Based on my completely non-scientific research in the last few weeks, where I asked people I know how comfortable they felt and how comfortable they think their peers felt, I estimate that at least 50% of managers (+/-20%) are not truly comfortable giving up control and oversight of their employees “time”.

If virtual teams are going to work, managers must change their perception of time, results, and management.  Why should you care if your employees finish early on Friday afternoons as long as they have achieved their objectives?  One of the huge benefits of virtual teams is that workers can plan their workday around what they need to accomplish, rather than the other way around. They can be flexible with time. They can take part in conference calls that, because of time-zone differences, are scheduled for early in the morning or late at night. They can plan their day around being available during the hours they are most needed. Aside from others’ needs, what is wrong with the employee considering some of their own needs?  Perhaps they like to work extra hours 4 days per week and take Friday off.  Does it matter what day the work is completed?  How much more productive do you think your team members will be if they know their manager trusts them, has confidence in their abilities, and rewards them when they get great results?  Do you think they will be as productive if you spend your time devising ways of constantly checking up on where they are and what they are doing?  If time is more important to you than results, your team members will devise creative ways of making it look like they are working when they are not. If this focus on time becomes more important, to you and to your team members, than getting the work done – then none of you will be achieving much in the way of results!

Virtual management requires a virtual perspective. You need to think and breathe virtual. You should no longer be constrained by assumptions and management controls conceived long ago for managing and controlling in an era that no longer exists.