Keep your staff close even when they're far away

Managing staff is hard enough when they're under your nose. Think how complicated it gets when they're hundreds, even thousands, of miles away.

Larry Gilbert knew from the start he'd need to keep track of a fairly scattered workforce. Gilbert is president of the Event Network, a $2.7-million operator of traveling gift stores for such blockbuster exhibitions as " Star Wars: The Magic of Myth" and the "Titanic Artifact Exhibition." The company's headquarters are in San Diego, but 90% of Gilbert's employees travel with the stores throughout the United States and Canada.

Gilbert's store managers are permanent staff, but the retail foot soldiers tend to be locals. To orient each new team to the company's culture and procedures, Gilbert has set up a traveling training team, which visits each new site for two weeks before it opens. "We want everyone to have a connection to us in San Diego," he says.

The training team's efforts focus on operations, but its members also engage in activities to create a sense of culture and belonging. "It's a very intense two weeks of training and acculturating people," Gilbert says. "We do a lot of team building, and it brings them together fast." Once the store is up and running, Gilbert uses conference calls, E-mail, and digital photography to keep in contact with his staff.

Technology, of course, makes long-distance management easier. Mike Priddy is president and CEO of Intervise, an information-technology consulting business based in Rockville, Md. In addition to E-mail and conference calls, Priddy relies heavily on his company's intranet to keep his geographically dispersed staff of 200 informed. He instructs employees to set the intranet's front page ("What's New at Intervise?") as the default home page on their browsers.

"It's not enough to just throw up an intranet and expect people to use it," says Priddy. "The trick is to make it part of daily functions." Through the intranet, Priddy makes available human-resources forms, marketing materials, project descriptions, proposal drafts, customer profiles, job listings, and the company's social calendar. He also employs two content-technology providers specifically for the intranet, at a cost of about $130,000 a year.

But technology gets you only so far. For Priddy, no gadget or system can replace good old face-to-face management. "My goal is to get in front of everyone at least once a year," he says.

With so much of his staff away from the mother ship, Priddy says, his greatest challenge is to keep everyone aware of his strategic vision for where the company is headed. "When I visit, people hang on my every word for stuff that's strategy oriented," he says.

Common questions Priddy fields include, What markets is the company thinking of entering? What specific services should employees focus on? "Back home, they get that from me every day," he says.

Priddy tries to visit each branch office at least once a month and flies the entire staff in to the company's headquarters once a year. "It gets very expensive, but you have to do it," he says. "There's an even bigger cost for not doing it. Your people are everything to your business. If they're out of the loop, you're talking about going out of business."