Managing remote employees: Lessons from ancient Rome and beyond - SmartBrief

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Managing remote employees: Lessons from ancient Rome and beyond

6 min read


Question: What do these five established jobs …

  • Call center representative
  • Salesperson
  • Truck driver
  • Writers
  • Consultants

… have in common with these five jobs that didn’t exist 10 years ago?:

  • Virtual assistant
  • Social media manager
  • Telework manager or coordinator
  • Search engine optimization specialist
  • Online advertising manager

Answer: They are staffed by employees who can do their work while their managers are in a different location. And if you’re a manager or aspiring manager, chances are at least one of them is going to work for you.

Telecommuting, distributed teams, outsourcing, and virtual teams are not new. They’ve all been around since the Roman empire was managing 25% of the world’s population spread out over 6 million square kilometers.

Consider this from the management classic “In Search of Excellence“:

“One reason the Roman empire grew so large and survived so long — a prodigious feat of management — is that there was no railway, airplane, car, radio, telephone. Above all, no telephone. And therefore you could not maintain any illusion of direct control over a general or provincial governor, you could not feel at the back of your mind that you could ring him up, or he could ring you, if a situation cropped up which was too much for him, or that you could fly over and sort things out if they started to get into a mess. You appointed him, you watched his chariot and baggage train disappear over the hill in a cloud of dust and that was that … There was, therefore, no question of appointing a man who was not fully trained, or not quite up to the job: you knew that everything depended on his being the best man for the job before he set off. And so you took great care in selecting him; but more than that you made sure that he knew all about Rome and Roman government and the Roman army before he went out.”

Imagine that. Somehow the Romans were able to manage remote employees without all of the methods written about when “ISOE” was published in 1982, as well as Skype, texting, social media, iPhones, Sharepoint, WebEx, and a host of other technologies.

So when it comes to managing remote employees, what can we learn from the ancient Romans, as well as today’s companies that are ranked the best for flexible jobs? Here are 10 timeless tips:

  1. Manage for results. Many traditional managers are accustomed to managing activities by observation and not necessarily by results. Again, this is not a new concept — the management guru Peter Ducker wrote about it back in the 1950s in his book “Management by Objectives.” Unfortunately, his ideas were ruined by management consultants who turned “MBO” into a bureaucratic mess.
  2. A shared purpose, goals, and value system. Every employee needs to be clear and aligned on the organizations purpose, goals, and shared values. Once the why and the what are clear, employees should be allowed to exercise judgment and creativity in how things are done.
  3. Hire great employees. Then train them and empower them do their jobs. Great employees don’t need to be babysat, monitored, checked on, micromanaged, and shouldn’t need to fill out daily and weekly activity reports. Great employees thrive with autonomy and trust. By the way, some of the research says extroverts actually thrive more than introverts when working remotely. But I wouldn’t start issuing MBTIs as a part of your selection process.
  4. Agree on boundaries. With technology and zone differences, it’s important for managers and employees discuss and agree when it’s OK and not OK to contact each other. For some, the expectation might be “24/7.” Or, it might be “Monday-Friday between the hours of 8-5 EDT.”
  5. Establish regular communications.Smart managers know the importance of keeping a regular schedule of one-on-one meetings with their employees. With remote employees, it’s even more critical not to miss one of these meetings. Unlike co-located employees, who are bound to run into their managers in the hallways and break room, remote employees don’t have that advantage (or disadvantage, depending how you look at it). Also agree on what method will be used for “do you have a minute” communications (i.e., texting, IM, or appointments only).
  6. Team development. In addition to hiring great employees, great managers understand the benefits of building great teams. Make sure all remote employees are included in regular virtual team meetings (this is where we have a leg up on the Romans). Remember that it takes two to three times as long to prepare for an effective virtual meeting. Finally, have at least one face-to-face team meeting per year. Yes, it’s expensive, but well worth the investment in relationship building and teamwork.
  7. Feedback. Make sure your remote employees are getting regular feedback — not just from the manager, but from clients and team members.
  8. Keep them connected. Partner your remote employees with other team members to collaborate on projects. In addition to promoting interdependency and cross-training, shared goals gives remote employees an opportunity to build trust and relationships with their team members, and provides an opportunity for virtual water cooler chit-chat.
  9. Learn from others. It’s great that you’re reading this blog post — good for you! Now go find at least three other managers who have had success managing remote employees and pick their brains.
  10. Technology. I’m thinking if the Romans had access to Skype they probably would have loved it. While technology is not the answer or a substitute for all of the points above, it can help. As long as it’s used to enhance communications, not to snoop and micromanage.

In the spirit of learning from others, share a remote management best practice that’s worked for you in the comments section.

Dan McCarthy is the director of Executive Development Programs at the University of New Hampshire. He writes the award-winning leadership development blog Great Leadership and is consistently ranked as one of the top digital influencers in leadership and talent management. He’s a regular contributor to SmartBrief and a member of the SmartBrief on Workforce Advisory Board. E-mail McCarthy.