Managing a Remote Team

In today’s larger organizations, it is commonplace to have teams spread out across the globe.  This is challenging for many reasons, not the least of which is developing the relationships that make you an effective manager and that allow the team to operate at their fullest potential.  Managing folks from far away is difficult and a skill that must be developed.  Remote employees often feel disconnected from the team and require more/different communication than the people on your team that you see every day in the office.

Communication is the most essential skill for managing a distributed team.  The spontaneous conversations that occur in a centrally located team simply do not happen when coworkers are spread around the state/country/globe.  These conversations need to be replaced by intentionally targeted time set aside for the purpose.  In my opinion, a manager should have 1:1s with every employee in her organization at least once per week.  This may get untenable once the group reaches a certain size but I believe it is critical for remote employees.  Even if it is just 30 minutes, it is essential for keeping in touch with the concerns of those you don’t see every day.  It is their time on your schedule to raise issues, talk about the local (home) office they’re in, or just have the casual conversations that build a relationship.  These conversations build some semblance of connection that would otherwise be impossible.

In addition to frequency of communication, the type of communication is also important.  There are a million blogs / articles / studies that talk about non-verbal communication and its importance in conveying meaning.  Certainly all layered meaning is lost over email.  Written (be it email, Twitter, or whatever) is the default communication method for many in technology but, much of the time, it is simply not sufficient.  When you cannot speak face-to-face (many companies limit the ability to travel), using the phone or preferably video conferencing are much more effective than email.  While this is not always possible, I find that having a five minute conversation over the phone is far more beneficial than trading a couple emails.  Take the time to pick up the phone.  For directs that sit outside your office, it would be odd to send an email for something quick when you could simply ask them in person.  Similarly for remote employees, make the call.

In addition to communication, there are other ramifications of having a distributed team.  When do you have a team meeting?  Do you have multiples to cover different geographies?  How do you form project team so that regions don’t become segregated?  If necessary (think operational support), how do you make sure skill sets are properly distributed?  All of these issues emerge when you start to spread the members of the team apart.  I don’t believe there are answers that apply in all or even most cases.  To a certain extent, the proper course is unique to the individual team.  I would say, though, that as managers of distributed teams, we must be sensitive to these complexities and develop skills / techniques to deal with them.  Some techniques I’ve implemented include rotating meeting times so that, in the event of non overlapping timezones, you rotate the pain of a non business hours meeting.  Similarly with project teams, mix them as best you can and rotate the leadership opportunities so that one region is not always in charge.  The solutions will be what the team needs – the important thing is to consider them carefully and be sensitive to the locations of your team members.

For those with teams dispersed over long distances, as opposed to a few local offices, culture is also a complicating factor.  People from different places operate in different ways.  Similarly to learning to interact with different personalities, managers should be sensitive to cultural differences.  In my experience, the manner in which folks in Asia work is far different from those in Eastern Europe.  Western Europe is different from those and the US is another case entirely.  Understanding and managing differently based on the cultural norms of the remote employee is another way in which we can bridge the divide of distributed teams.  Some people are used to working for an American company (in my case) and are thus used to a US style of management.  That can make things easier but does not remove responsibility from the manager to lean into those differences.

The final point I would make about remote management is that it pays to build a relationship with a manager local to your remote staff.  Assuming they come into a local office (rather than working from home), there will be a management presence of some sort.  It is important to have someone in that office you can rely on for local HR information, facilities, benefits, or any of the other items that may vary based on location.  It is also useful to have someone to use as a sounding board to better understand a particular employee or situation.  S/he will know the culture and the person better and can be incredibly helpful in navigating difficult situations.

Having a remote team is a level of complexity higher than one that is centrally located and these types of teams cannot be managed in the same manner.  Simply realizing that and paying attention to the differences on a daily basis will go a long way toward making you successful.

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