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Managing Documentation Teams with Varied Schedules and Locations

By Brett Peruzzi

In many of today’s corporate work environments, the days of managing a group of people who all share a common physical location and the same work hours are waning. More often, work teams may be composed of people who work in either a company office or from home, in different cities, states, time zones, and countries. They may also work different hours or even different days.

Knowledge work, such as technical writing, is ideally suited to these types of work arrangements since, in many cases, the work can be done anytime, anywhere — unlike certain professions such as nursing or construction. Modern computer and telecommunications technology has made the world, or at least those parts of it with high-speed Internet access, one big potential office.

There are many different work arrangements that documentation managers may face. For example, if you’ve been managing for a long time, particular at the same company, you were probably involved in creating and approving these work arrangements. Or, if you’ve recently changed jobs or are new to management, you may find yourself trying to manage a diverse set of work arrangements you inherited. While at first it may seem difficult to keep this dizzying, questionable array of details straight, suspend your judgment for a while.

To make alternative work arrangements operate at maximum efficiency, you might need to fine-tune your team’s schedule. As a result, this could be one of the most useful activities for retaining key people and keeping morale high. In my experience, nearly everyone who has an alternative work arrangement realizes the value it brings to their work and personal lives, and will go to almost any length to maintain it. For one thing, when it comes to driving fewer days to an office in this age of soaring gas prices, it’s like giving employees a raise.

Types of arrangements

There are numerous types of work arrangements outside the standard 9-5 office. Some of the most long-standing ones are part-time work, job sharing, and flexible hours. One of the most common and fastest-growing arrangements is working part-time or full-time from home. A recent study indicated that 41 million corporate employees work in a virtual workplace at least one day per week. And with the work force being increasingly dispersed both domestically and globally, managing staff who work in different cities, states, time zones, and countries has also become quite common. The ability to manage people remotely is a management skill in itself – a skill that is sure to increase in demand. Therefore, you should look at this as an opportunity to increase the value you can provide to both your employer and your overall career.

It’s all about the tools

Clearly, it is the technologies that have evolved over the past 10 or so years that enable employees to work anytime, anywhere. Cell phones, PDAs, wireless networks, instant messaging, e-mail, and VPNs make it difficult for your cube neighbors to know (or even care) whether you’re in the office or on the beach. Add in audio and video conferencing, web demos, collaboration software like wikis, blogs, and team rooms, and the physical office becomes almost irrelevant — even if you’re there physically! With the right tools, you can hold very effective meetings, training sessions, product demos, and documentation reviews. Some of the meetings I attend, even when everyone is in the same office, are done by audio conference, allowing people to multi-task on their computers while the meeting is going on.

The dark side of all these great tools is that we’re more electronically tethered to our jobs than ever before. As a result, some people have a difficult time setting boundaries, both in their own work hours, and in when/how they contact their employees or coworkers. Nights, weekends, holidays, are less distinct in a 24/7 world. More and more people are working while away on vacation (a contradiction if I ever heard one). And just because you can text someone on their cell phone at night when you have a question or brilliant idea doesn’t mean you should!

Benefits

There is a multitude of potential benefits to having a team with varied schedules and locations. Unfortunately, some managers are hesitant to give up the sense of control they feel when their staffs are in the same location and work the same hours. In reality, it’s more an illusion of control. Do you routinely spend most of your day looking over employees’ shoulders to make sure they’re working? I didn’t think so. If you do, I feel sorry for them and for you.

In my early days of managing people with alternative work arrangements, as well as having one myself, I had a manager who, while he tolerated these arrangements, would sometimes say to me ruefully, “I just wish I could tell whether people at home were really working.” And this was from a guy who was rarely seen leaving his own office, and who often didn’t know what his workers 10 feet away were doing!

So what are some of the potential benefits? First, let’s consider those that benefit the company.

  • Increased productivity – This is something frequently cited by people who work from home. These individuals actually get more work done, due to fewer interruptions from others in the office and no time lost from commuting.
  • Lower wage and occupancy costs – This is why companies have “offshore” or “nearshore” employees. Typically, these people work from home and/or they are in areas where office space costs less, plus wages are lower.
  • Off-hours availability and faster response time – This gives a big boost when you have people working different hours and from home. The difference in time zones can become a de facto early or late shift. Also, home-based workers often work earlier or later than office-based workers to accommodate family needs.  On my team, due to our ability to quickly connect with the company network via VPN at night or on a weekend, we have averted many a crisis and met various unscheduled deadlines.

Finally, companies benefit from workers who have higher morale, higher job satisfaction, and lower stress. This often translates to longer employee retention. Employees benefit from these factors, too. Half of the workers in the United States believe that work stress negatively affects their personal lives. Anything that helps with the elusive “work/life” balance is generally highly prized by employees. As an experienced manager, it’s increasingly common to see people who make this balance a higher priority than salary, promotions, challenging assignments, and so on.

And let’s not forget the potential benefits to society. For example:

  • Less traffic
  • Less air pollution
  • Less fuel consumption
  • Less road wear

My theory is that companies will continue to allow more employees to work remotely as the energy independence and conservation movement gains momentum, and it will be seen as socially responsible, even patriotic. Of course, throw in some tax breaks and remote working will really take off. It can be done successfully on a large scale. Nearly half of IBM’s 330,000 employees work from home, on the road, or at a client location. It saves Big Blue $100 million annually in real estate costs alone. Imagine how many gallons of gasoline that saves, or how many tons of pollutants are kept out of the air. Now imagine if as many of the Fortune 500 did the same thing. One estimate is that 25% of US workers could potentially work from home.

Potential Pitfalls

Not everyone has the personality or discipline to handle alternative work arrangements. While some technical writers are introverted and work well alone, it’s far from a universal truth. Some people need an office environment and standard, fixed hours for structure. For others, working far away from colleagues is too isolating. Sometimes it’s a matter of degree. One or two days a week from home might be a welcome, energizing change for some people, while an entire week is untenable.

There’s also the “out of sight, out of mind” syndrome. Whether it’s real or imagined, people not working in a company’s primary location might be concerned about missing out on key interactions, particularly the spontaneous and informal ones, and that their career progress will suffer. There’s also more potential for miscommunication, especially when you rely more on things like e-mail or IMs to communicate, or even telephones – all of which lack the visual cues that face-to-face communication provides.

Another potential issue is lack of team unity and cooperation, which can cause problems for projects that need a high degree of team interaction and interdependency to meet objectives. An ad hoc meeting is not as simple as walking down the hall and rounding everyone up in a conference room. An end-of-project celebration is not as simple as piling into a few cars and heading to a local restaurant for lunch.

How to make it work

First of all, manage by results. Hopefully, you’re already doing this. As long as the work is getting done on time and in a quality fashion, where or when the work is done should be mostly irrelevant. And don’t fall into the trap of only allowing alternative work arrangements when you need an extraordinary effort (“Sure, you can work from home tonight/this weekend to meet this deadline!”). That’s exploitation – NOT effective leadership!

And speaking of leadership. As always, lead by example. If you have an alternative work arrangement, be as available and responsive to your staff as you would expect them to be to you and other coworkers. Keep in touch with all team members equally, regardless of where or when they work. Understand and be flexible about the different work and communication styles of all team members. Perhaps some prefer a quick IM, others a phone call. Have a detailed team work schedule with days, hours, time zones, and all contact information posted where everyone can see it, such as a wiki or Intranet web page.

Using all the technological tools available, schedule and hold regular team meetings. Be mindful of people in different time zones and try to schedule meetings at the best possible time. For example, schedule meetings around mid-day if everyone is in the United States. This way, someone on the opposite coast doesn’t have to dial in before dawn or in the late evening hours. Between the U.S. and Europe, you have to work harder to find a good time for all parties but it’s possible. Asia presents more of a challenge, because of the greater time difference with the U.S. But there are ways to compromise – perhaps by trading off every other meeting to accommodate who has the most unfavorable time.

Occasionally, try to get as much of the group together in person as possible. My employees are spread out roughly across a 100-mile radius from our main office. At least quarterly, we all come to the office for a team meeting, which includes lunch afterwards. Even people who talk on the telephone frequently enjoy the camaraderie of these events. Without these meetings, some of these workers might never see one another.

Conclusion

With the convergence of business globalization, soaring energy prices, and the ongoing push by companies to cut costs, you will probably be expected at some point to manage teams with alternative work arrangements and in varied locations. While this presents many challenges, the benefits are even more compelling for many businesses and most employees. Rather than holding on to old management attitudes, embrace what appears to be the inevitable future. As a result, you will likely increase your value and broaden your skill sets for your current employer and your overall career.

About the Author

Brett Peruzzi has been in the technical-communication field for over 20 years as a writer, editor, manager, consultant, and educator. Presently, he is the Senior Documentation Manager at PNC Global Investment Servicing in Westborough, Massachusetts. He has a bachelor’s degree in English and a Master of Technical and Professional Writing degree from Northeastern University. He has taught technical editing at Northeastern and taught technical writing for a local continuing education program. A long-time senior member of the Boston Chapter of the Society for Technical Communication, Brett is a former online documentation award winner and now serves as a competition judge.