Make Long-Distance Telecommuting Successful

By: Summer Mandell

Although thousands of associations are headquartered in Washington, DC, those that aren't often station a staffer or two in the area to represent the organization on Capitol Hill. Find out how some solo association professionals make the telecommuting relationship work. (Titled "Long-Distance Connections" in print edition.)

As the hub of the federal government, Washington, DC, is home to many association professionals involved in advocacy work for their organizations. And a lot of them are here alone—or with only a few colleagues—in the District while their coworkers operate from their association's headquarters beyond the Beltway.

For many of these long-distance workers, the relationship is seamless. The availability of technology tools and the acceptance of teleworking among more employers means that the setup isn't exactly unique. But there are ways to make the long-distance relationship more effective for DC-based employees and their home-office colleagues.

Constant Communication

To keep in touch with his coworkers at the United Spinal Association, Joe Isaacs, FASAE, CAE, doesn't need high-tech tools. "We don't have teleconferencing in the sense of face-to-face conversations. We do it by phone. The video chats are limited," says Isaacs, who is vice president of public policy for United Spinal and is one of four staffers based in Washington, DC.

And the phone calls are frequent. While about a dozen staff members work at the East Elmhurst, New York, headquarters, the rest of United Spinal's staff members are dispersed around the United States. At least once a week, Isaacs is on a call with leadership team members and other colleagues who collaborate with him on projects. With staff members calling in from all over the country, Isaacs says that high frequency and good planning are necessary to make communication successful.

"For each meeting I create a specific agenda," he says. "I welcome input from others on the agenda. I also provide highlights back of what I've heard them say. ... lines of communication open with colleagues and making everyone aware of the work that they are doing on behalf of their organizations. The American Academy of Neurology uses its internal publications to keep staff up to date on each department's work. Amery's staff fills in the specifics of what the advocacy team is doing in DC. "We work hard to try to get people within our own organization to recognize the importance of our department," says Amery. "Not that it's a competition, but you do want people to feel that you're relevant."

Isaacs says United Spinal has a similar way of communicating with staff members, including a monthly departmental report in the staff newsletter. He sometimes travels to present on various projects to colleagues in person.

"Make sure that there is an appreciation and understanding about how often you need to be reporting" to colleagues, says Isaacs. "I've run a number of associations myself, and I think that my boss feels like I make decisions in a calculated manner and I'm prepared to present on how I got there. But someone new in a new [DC] office may have to earn that. So it's trust building. And you do that through communication."

Even though it's easier to build trust face to face, Mack says you can do it through phone and email exchanges by being sincere and willing to talk openly about issues. "It may take more time to develop those relationships versus face to face, but it will happen," she says. "It's just a matter of time."

And trust goes both ways. Former association CEO Isaacs says an organization needs to give its remote workers autonomy to make the relationship effective. "There's a delicate balance between giving them the freedom to act and then letting them know that you expect them to be responsive," he says. "You have to give them the room to succeed."

Mack says remote workers often fear being "out of sight, out of mind." Even those who are empowered to make decisions and work independently should make a concerted effort to stay engaged and involved with their organization. "You're doing what needs to be done, but you're still in their face, so to speak, so that you don't miss out on other opportunities that may be there for you," she says.

Even telecommuters who don't require much supervision still need to be kept in the loop about what's happening in the organization, and it's the manager's responsibility to provide those updates, Mack says. She recommends outlining the expectations of both the remote worker and the manager in a teleworking agreement at the beginning of the relationship. Mack says to review the agreement each year and update it as necessary.

It's a Small Staff After All

When you're the only one at your association's DC office, it's likely that you'll encounter issues that staff members at headquarters don't have to think about. For instance, if technology issues arise, the home office has to be called. If your IT department can't solve the problem remotely, you've got to find a local vendor.

"I'm a policy guy, I'm a lobbyist, but it's almost like having to run your own household," says Amery. "You have to figure out who's going to pay the electric bill, who you have to call when the toilet is stopped up. ... Usually, when you're back at the home headquarters, you have staff who are hired to think about that stuff, and here we have to."

Being away from the rest of the team also means you sometimes miss out on impromptu and informal chats and office celebrations. At holiday time, for example, "you feel it when you're not going out with the rest of the staff and you're doing your own thing. But someone has to oversee the notion of collegiality [with remote workers] and ensure needs are met," says Isaacs.

Amery came to DC after working at the American Academy of Neurology's headquarters in St. Paul for five years. He's been in Washington, DC, for more than six years and says he maintains close contact with "the leadership [of the association], the leadership of my department, and other support staff in advocacy, so I don't miss a beat there. But what I do miss out on is other staff hires and people moving on. ... I definitely am not as linked in with the 130 staff people in St. Paul like I used to be. Is it a big deal? Not really, it doesn't really impact the job that I do here for the academy. We do miss out on the celebrations and general camaraderie, but we have a whole network on Capitol Hill."

Make Telecommuting Work

Mack says that one of the best ways to make sure a telecommuting relationship will be effective is to change the way staff members think about how work gets accomplished and how communication should occur. "Sometimes we find it difficult to communicate in these remote situations, but it's really because we're trying to fit a square peg into a round hole instead of realizing that communication doesn't have to work in the way it's always been done," she says. "We have to open our minds and think innovatively about different ways to communicate."

Mack says telecommuters and those who will work with them should receive training. "It's very important for folks to understand how they should be working differently, and I think that's something that has to be trained or emphasized," she says. "We sometimes expect people to just understand it ... but we really haven't given them enough guidance on how to do that effectively. I think training is important particularly for a telecommuter who is going to be working remotely. Give them some guidelines and real good tools and tips that can help them take advantage of the remote environment."

Telecommuters and managers can benefit from outlining the workload of the remote employee, the timeline for a project, and expected results he or she is trying to reach. Mack says that managers must learn how to manage to the outcome of a project rather than supervise the employee throughout the project. "You have to have clearly defined guidelines and goals that are established," says Mack. "If you have those things, you can incorporate communication into that. You could say, 'I'm going to make sure to communicate with the team and make sure we connect.' Those pieces of the puzzle need to be there so that you can stay on task and stay focused."

A telecommuting relationship isn't for everyone. "You need to be a motivated person, meaning somebody who enjoys what you do," says Amery. "If you don't, boy, you could just say, 'Oh, I don't want to do that today,' and you could get away with it for a while. But professionally, that's no fun."

Summer Mandell is associate editor of Associations Now. Email: [email protected]