During the last few months, the operations of probation and parole agencies have been greatly impacted by the “Stay-at-Home” orders issued by governors as a result of the COVID-19 Pandemic (also referred to as the Coronavirus Pandemic).
The requirement of having offenders report to the office of the supervising officer and the practice of having officers conducting home visits were both discontinued. In most cases, officers began to meet with offenders through the use of video conferencing software such as Zoom or GoToMeeting.
Surprisingly, officers in many jurisdictions have reported that offenders appear more relaxed and more open about what is happening in their lives than they are when they report to the probation or parole office or when the officer conducts a home visit. Officers are reporting that there is a totally different relationship developing between the officer and the offender. Many offenders are beginning to see the officer not just as someone to whom they have to report and who oversees the conditions of their probation, but as someone who is trying to help them.
Pre-sentence Investigation officers are discovering that it is easier to obtain from offenders the information they need for the Pre-sentence Investigation Reports (PSI) prepared for the courts and that it takes them less time to prepare the PSIs because they are not interrupted by telephone calls, other officers stopping by their office to chat and other activities that accompany working in an office environment.
Some agency administrators are looking at these positive results and realizing that supervising offenders after COVID-19 is going to be different than it was before. This will mean that not only will the way the officers supervise offenders change, but if agencies continue the practice of allowing staff to work from home (WFH) the supervision of employees and management of probation and parole operations will also have to change.
Tips for Managing a Virtual Workforce
Some administrators may already have managerial and leader-ship techniques for staff in remote locations, such as satellite offices and institutions and some of those skills may also work with leading and managing the virtual work force, but some will not.
Just as we had to develop new methods of leading and man-aging staff when we established satellite offices and residential facilities, the same will prove true with leading and managing WFH employees. Simply put, we cannot lead and manage the virtual workplace the same way we lead and managed before. We must learn new and better ways to lead and manage in the new environment. As Eric Hoffer pointed out, “In times of change, learners inherit the earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.”
While this is not an exhaustive list, here are some tips to improve your effectiveness in the art of managing virtual teams.
1. View it as an Opportunity to Grow
Regardless of your comfort level in managing a virtual team, view it as an opportunity to increase your leadership and management effectiveness. Embrace early disruptions and focus on implementing the infrastructure, revised processes and new rituals that will enable your team’s success. As the world moves towards more remote and virtual models, your efforts won’t be wasted.
2. Understand the Challenges of Managing a Virtual Workplace
To lead a virtual team well, managers may discover they need to loosen their reins a little while finding ways to continue to hold employees accountable.
Without the ability to continuously monitor employees in a shared office space, they may find success by focusing more on what gets done and whether it meets well-defined quality standards than whether they are working the traditional 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. schedule. In managing a virtual team, the manager should establish two measurements for work to meet: (1) quality, which should be defined as the completion of a task or responsibility in a manner that meets all standards of excellence for that task or responsibility, and (2) timeliness, which should be defined as completing a task or responsibility on or before the stated deadline for that task or responsibility.
It’s helpful, too, to be willing to experiment a little with technology and how meetings are conducted.
Adopt New Ways of Communicating
While most leaders/managers are aware that communication will be an obvious challenge with managing the virtual workplace, some challenges aren’t so obvious. Not only do you lose some of those hallway conversations, and quick in-office chats, but it goes deeper than that. When you don’t have enough face-to-face communication, it can become difficult to sense intent in messages between you and the person you are supervising. It’s harder to understand a message when it’s only text, or you don’t know the employee as well as other in-office employees.
When you first begin managing a virtual workforce, it will quickly become obvious that people have different preferences when it comes to communication. Some people prefer to be contacted by text, some by a phone call, some by email, some by instant messaging, and some prefer video conferencing even if it is a two-person meeting.
The most effective administrators will establish ways to effectively manage the communication styles of your entire team and create a structure that supports collaboration.
The most important things the manager of a virtual team can do is to establish clear expectations of team members which should begin with effectively communicating the team’s vision and mission. The manager’s focus should be on creating a shared purpose by engaging the team in answering the following questions: “What should be our contribution?”, “What are our objectives?”, “How are others depending on us as a team?” and “What are the key activities for successful performance as a team?”
In clarifying expectations, the manager should clearly define each team member’s role and responsibility, the specific tasks and outcomes to be accomplished and the standards by which performance will be measured.
It is also important that the manager establish clear check-in times for the team as a group and for one-on-one meeting between the manager and each team member.
Benefits of Having a Virtual Workforce
Considering hiring an employee and allowing them to work virtually could improve the pool of candidates when filling positions within your organization. For example, if you were interviewing for a Pre-Sentence Investigation Officer, an applicant with excellent interviewing and writing skills might be the best candidate for the position even though they did not live in your jurisdiction.
This would not be a totally new concept. Dr. Kelli Martin, who was employed by the Tarrant County Community Supervision and Corrections Department, accepted a position as a researcher for the Taylor, Bexar, and Hidalgo County CSCDs, but continues to live in Tarrant County.
A few years ago, El Paso County CSCD allowed an employee whose husband was transferred to move with her husband without giving up her position. She did all the visits to the state facilities for the other officers who had State Jail caseloads, which mean the other officers did not have to travel from El Paso to the locations where the State Jails were, thus reducing the travel costs of state jail visits.
Allowing some employees to continue to work at home would also reduce the amount of office space needed by the department even if employees were allowed to work from home only part of the time. Schedules could be arranged to accommodate the sharing of offices.
Once we adjust to having a virtual workforce, we may find that, with the right technology and the right management and leadership techniques, having a virtual workforce is not significantly different from leading and managing employees located in satellite offices.
The question we should be asking is not “Should we consider adopting components of the virtual workforce environment?”, but “How can we capture the advantages the virtual workforce provides and still effectively fulfill the organization’s vision and mission?”
What is your answer to that question?