E-mail has drastically altered the way many of us work.
Complicated instructions can be passed to dozens of people as
quickly as it takes to type them out. And if we want to get in
touch with a busy colleague we no longer need waste hours trying to
telephone them. But in our e-nthusiasm are we in danger of
replacing real communication with the mere exchange of
As manager of a regionally dispersed team of information, training
and development officers, mostly home workers, it is a danger of
which Julian Hallett, development director at the Down’s Syndrome
Association, is aware. He makes a point of phoning all 16 of his
“E-mail isn’t a substitute for talking to people,” he says. “If you
need to give someone feedback and you know you’re not going to see
them for a while it’s much better to give them a ring. E-mails are
concise but cold and it’s so easy for what you say to be
misconstrued. You have a much better relationship with colleagues
when you pick up the phone. And sometimes you can replace 20
e-mails with a single phone call, like when you’re planning diary
A tricky aspect is keeping in touch with what people are doing and
how well they are performing. If someone is working from the same
office base it is usually easy for their manager to spot when they
are having problems. But a geographically remote worker may be able
to conceal that they are not coping.
Hallett also sees his staff regularly. Rather than always calling
meetings, Hallett aims to get out to meet them – although not at
He says: “I make a point of seeing people at an event such as a
conference where I can see what they are actually doing. People say
they appreciate my taking the trouble to come and see them but it’s
also a back door way for me to find out how well they are
Hallett believes it is important to adjust your management style to
the individual needs of your staff. He says: “Some people are very
competent in their work but like a lot of feedback. There are
people that I speak to four or five times a week but other people
would feel that I was trying to keep tabs on them if I rang them so
frequently. Over time you get to work out each person’s preferred
management style and how much autonomy they need.”
But building a sense of team membership can be a challenge. To
counter isolation, Hallett encourages his staff to be in regular
phone and e-mail contact with each other. There are five
information officers, providing advice and information to callers
who may be people with Down’s syndrome, parents, carers or
professionals. Hallett says it is important for the officers to
feel able to call on each other for support. “Some of the issues
people have to deal with can be very distressing. People need to
know they can ring a colleague if they’ve dealt with a difficult
Hallett also encourages the team to keep each other posted about
what they are doing. “People who moan about not knowing what’s
going on are usually the ones who don’t let other people know what
they themselves are doing. They need to realise that communication
Selecting staff who are likely to thrive in a home-working
environment is essential. It doesn’t suit everyone to be part of a
team that meets only three or four times a year.
Hallett says: “At the selection stage we try to pick people who are
already working in this way. Some people who are office-based say
they are used to working independently but it’s quite different
when your home becomes your base. I ask candidates to list the
of working from home. It is revealing when they can quickly list
the advantages but haven’t really thought about the
Name: Julian Hallett.
Job: Director of development, Down’s Syndrome
Qualifications: BA (Hons) Psychology; MSc
Inter-professional Studies (learning disability).
Last job: Development officer, Mencap in
First job: Resettlement officer, Gwent Social
- Enthusiasm can be more important than previous experience.
- Encourage regular phone calls and e-mails between home-based
- Use meetings for socialising as well as business.
- Be a model of consistency and adopt the same management style
for all staff.
- If someone makes a mistake or misses a deadline, dash off an
e-mail pointing it out.
- Invite yourself into a worker’s home to check they are set up