Time Zone Tango

Keys to managing from afar…

1. Design thoughtful methods for communication.

2. Build in time for personal connections during conferences.

3. Video conferences are fine for updates, but arrange face-to-face meetings if things seem amiss.

Gary Veale usually begins his workday with a trip to the UK. Then he swings through Germany, France, Spain and the Nordics.

By the end of the day on Mondays, he’s taken a spin through the continent  —  all without leaving his office in Guildford, a town about 30 miles southwest of  London.

This whirlwind trip around the globe makes sense considering Veale is president of the European operations for Avaya, the communications systems company most famous for video-conferencing software.

But there’s a downside to these group video meetings, Veale warns. It’s often difficult to pick up on office dynamics, such as which manager is feeling down and who’s on fire. That’s where Fridays come in.

“Friday mornings, I don’t book anything on my calendar except for direct calls with managers, with no agendas,” Veale said. “I often start the call asking how their kid’s soccer [football] lesson went last night.”

The point is to stay connected even when managing from afar. “I’m asking them to work hard and be competitive,” Veale said, “so I have to find time to listen to my people.”

Veale’s Friday routine is indicative of the need to face challenges encountered by managers who oversee employees from a distance. Suddenly being a good manager becomes a sea of logistics that may dictate the success of a team.

Amplified angst

The problem with managing from halfway around the globe is that the communication problems bosses face in regular workplaces are amplified, said Ethan Bernstein, an assistant professor of business administration at Harvard Business School.

“In a perfect world, virtual teams would be the best thing ever,” Bernstein said from his office in Boston. “But human behaviour often gets in the way.”

Success with a staff spread out over a great distance begins by carefully setting up your team. Prepping it for success in advance means developing a communication process that will assure managers can keep track of the emotional state of their employees.

That isn’t easy, considering it’s often difficult to read body language on a video conference call, Bernstein said. Email is even worse, a medium where tone and meaning are often lost or misconstrued.  And the attention span in a phone call is often not what it should be, with one side or both probably checking their emails.

Workplaces spread out among distant locales means less tolerance for errors, Bernstein said. There’s less communication between the team members, so problems between two workers are often amplified.

That’s something Suzy Levy thinks about regularly. She’s head of leadership, diversity and employee engagement at Accenture, the 280,000-employee professional and technical-services company. Her team of 11 is often spread out around the world, so she uses video conference calls to check in to see who’s happy.

The key, Levy said from London, is to set up your team and let them knock out tasks without micromanaging every decision. That takes trust and if you see a problem arising, you may want to schedule extra phone calls, maybe arrange more video conferencing and perhaps put together some face-to-face meetings. Even in this era of telecommuting and chatting, Levy said, nothing replaces an actual sit-down.

Don’t skip this

Levy also cautions against skipping the getting-to-know-you phase — a step often overlooked by managers with spread-out teams. With a staff that’s in the office, it’s natural to ask about their weekend or talk about the big game over a cup of tea. So Levy makes sure to build in time during her video conferences for that same type of chit-chat.

“You have to say, let’s just talk about how you are and how your weekend is,” Levy said.

Veale does that with his Friday routine but he says he’s also thinking about that with his Monday morning group calls too. The video meetings with an entire office are partially about hearing updates on their latest projects but it’s also about figuring out where things stand with them emotionally.

“I’m getting a sense of whether they’re tired or deflated or feeling down. You can pick that up and then you know it’s something you need to follow up with later,” Veale said.

At Avaya’s recent yearly meeting for its top executives in Argentina, Veale still held his weekly calls with his European offices. It meant long days for him but in the end he got to check in with his teams while in Latin America for the week.

“To be good manager, I like to say you have to build a personal contract,” Veale said. “That doesn’t change when you’re traveling.”

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