Absence Makes the Heart Grow Fonder (Not!)

When you are in love, separation from your loved one is painful. The longer you are separated, the more you want to be together. The saying is attributed to Thomas Haynes Bayly, a popular (but fairly light weight) writer of the early 19th century. Ironically, the popularity of the phrase he coined has far outstripped his reputation.

The effect is opposite in business. Physical separation is often the cause of friction, misunderstanding, resentment and defensiveness.

Anyone who has managed multiple locations knows the phenomenon of “branch mentality.” The employees in a remote company location resent the “interference” of the corporate office. The folks in corporate don’t understand how hard it is to compete out in the real world. They are focused on reports more than results. They operate on theory rather than practicality.

In the main office, the complaint is that the employees in the field don’t follow the systems. They make everyone’s jobs harder by doing their own thing, ignoring deadlines, and communicating poorly.

Any sales manager has heard salesmen complain that the company’s prices don’t work in their markets. Their customers are unique, and want different products or different services.

Every franchisor knows that an unsuccessful franchisee will blame the poor systems, marketing or support of the franchisor. The successful franchisee, of course, is successful only because of his or her own skills and innovation in the local market.

And then there is email. A separate column, actually a separate book, could be written about email. Email battles seldom start between people who see each other every day. The begin because people who don’t see each other try to influence behavior remotely. Their message is urgent, but isn’t responded to in what they consider a timely manner. They try to tell others what they should do in an email. They copy the boss, or coworkers, or hit “reply all” with a criticism.

The solution to every one of these scenarios is the same: face to face communication. Sociologists say that as much as 85% of our interpersonal communication is through body language. Try this the next time someone asks you for a report:

Say “You are such a stickler for deadlines!” face to face with a big smile and while rolling your eyes comically.

Say “You are such a stickler for deadlines!” face to face, with a scowl.

Say “You are such a stickler for deadlines!” in an email. Now copy the email to five other people.

How would the reaction differ? The first one you are likely to get away with, even though what you said might not be appreciated. The second is bound to generate some defensiveness. The third starts a war.

As the owner of a business, your leadership responsibilities include spreading the culture of the organization, and making everyone part of the team. It’s easy to “forget” the folks in the field as long as they are doing their jobs. In truth, they need twice the contact of the people who see you every day.

Include remote workers in regular meetings. Conference calls are better than memos, because employees can give immediate feedback. Skype or other web-based video conferencing tools are better yet.

Limit the number of central office employees who can broadcast to the people in the field. It is frustrating to receive multiple emails on the same topic, or to open a string of messages from accounting, operations, sales and marketing. (“Don’t those people have anything else to do but send emails?”)

Most importantly, get people face to face. Send employees from the main office to visit those in the field, not to inspect, but to learn. Bring remote personnel into the main office periodically to meet the people who support them.

It can be difficult to budget an expense for activity that seems to lack specific purpose; but what better purpose can you have than a company where people work together more effectively?

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One Response to Absence Makes the Heart Grow Fonder (Not!)

  1. Joe Zlotkowski says:

    Good discussion. I am especially interested and working on ways to effectively use remote technologies like Skype, webex, and communicator.

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