Managing remote teams is everything but easy. There’s too much of a distance between you. You promise to always keep in touch, always talk through, but circumstances get the better of you. The calls are fewer, and when you do get through, you barely know how to string a full sentence together. You may be just a few time zones apart, but it feels like decades.
If it sounds like I’m talking about relationships, I am. To an extent.
The deal is, a professional relationship takes as much dedication and fine-tuning as a romantic relationship for it to work. This goes double for the ever-growing reality of managing remote teams.
On paper, the situation is clear. Working from the comfort of your own chair is so alluring to most people that remote working in management and business has grown by a whopping 41.9% from 2000 to 2010.
How do they stay engaged? How do they keep their discipline?
A good manager is an answer to both.
The common misconception about managing a remote team is that the manager is a link between a worker and his de jure workplace. In truth, managers can work remotely just as well. The number of guides and help books grows by the day, but it is important to keep in mind that team management is not a science.
Although you may know what you’re doing in theory, but it can still blow up in your face.
Nonetheless, the high-risk high-reward aspect of it is what makes people consider remotely managing teams. The key is to keep these long-distance relationships as engaging as possible. Here is how you achieve that.
The first key to managing remote teams is to maintain good lines of communication.
Today, manager can communicate with others from his team in a variety of ways, eliminating the need for regular face-to-face contacts.
Forget micromanaging. Ideally, you should talk to your team once in the morning to discuss their agenda and once in the evening to see how the progress is going. As long as this is done in a brief, informal manner, noone will see it as an interference.
From the experience of business solutions designer Brad Egeland it is best to err on the side of over-communication. It takes effort to be on the same page all the time, which is why you should reinforce the message that you are always contactable.
(All within reason, of course. If there are differences in time zones, you have to plan your communication accordingly.)
Call it empathy, emotional intelligence, or basic human decency, the idea is just the same. Since remote team management is all about collaboration and working side by side, the ability to place oneself in the shoes of another person plays a major part in smoothing out dents in team’s work.
Empathy is one of those soft skills that are harder to nurture, but the reward itself is that much higher. The world of business knows plenty of examples when empathy helped achieve better results. George Anders even predicts empathy becoming the number one must-have job skill by 2020.
“We still need people to step into the situations where — to put it bluntly — my team's algorithms don't mesh with your team's algorithms. In such situations, the human touch is essential.” (G. Anders)
Team manager is, in essence, a juggler. No matter what size the team is, it is up to him to keep everything in check. When it comes to working with remote teams, the core idea is that you have to allow flexible hours yet maintain consistency.
That is to say, a concrete plan is a must, but you should be open to adjusting strategies at the same time.
It is best to make friends with OKR system, as it will help with the burden of staying organized. Remote workers should be metrics-driven, as numbers give a much clearer assessment of how far with the progress they are.
As an example of a well-built hierarchy of objectives, Weekdone uses three-level OKR system. It takes into account company objectives, team objectives, and personal objectives. This allows for a much deeper goal-setting and makes distributing your performance plan quick and easy.
One common method of managing teams, especially when it comes to remote teams, is by building trust. Employees need to trust that their managers are looking out for their best interest. On the other hand, managers need to trust that their employees are engaged and motivated at work.
David W. Ballard, head of APA’s Center for Organizational Excellence, says that trust “plays an important role in the workplace and affects employees’ well-being and job performance”.
Part of this trust is built during the hiring process – selecting candidates who are self-motivated – and the rest is built over time with each positive interaction. Manager needs to let go of the urge to control what people are doing. There is a misconception that it is manager’s duty to manage people.
In his article The Best Way to Manage People is Don’t, Bill Effinger points out that ”a successful manager manages a business but works with people in a free-flowing exchange of ideas, effort, and integrity“.
By keeping others informed, you keep them engaged.
While we’re on the topic of trust and finite sources, there is also patience.
In a new remote team, the team members have to adjust to each other. It may take from several weeks to a couple of months.
It is important to understand how other on your team behave and what you can expect from them. During that learning period, the manager needs to be patient and accept that others are different and may make mistakes.
While working from home gives a certain degree of freedom, it can also breed negativity and loneliness. Times and times again was the importance of positive reinforcement underscored.
Employee recognition is one of the more important tools at manager’s disposal. The researches show that employees who feel valued were significantly more likely to report having high levels of energy, being strongly involved in their work and feeling happily engrossed in what they do.
According to the Society for Human Resources Management/Globoforce semi-annual survey of HR leadership practices, companies with recognition programs experienced 22 percent lower employee turnover rates.
What’s more important is that these metrics scale directly to the frequency of recognition. Infrequent feedback has 30-40 percent less impact than more regular contact with employees.
Like trust, positive relationships are formed over time. Don’t miss out on an important day of team members, send them gifts, and call them personally. Offer small rewards when your team reaches a milestone.
Knowing the rules means knowing when to break them. Even Moses broke the tablets with commandments, though I certainly don’t recommend such a literal approach.
Managing remote teams or just working from home almost always has a punk vibe to it. You’ve beaten the system. You may still work for The Man, but you’re doing it in your jammies. You’re on top of the world.
Or so it may seem at first glance.
Yes, many of the skills required by an ordinary team manager also apply when managing remote teams. And yes, working from home has its sweet moments. The harsh truth is, not everybody is cut out to managing projects remotely.
Although, the tides are changing, and if there is any truth to the experiments conducted by Nicholas Bloom, professor of economics at Stanford University, working from home has too big of an advantage to dismiss it entirely.
The last piece of advice for managing remote teams would be to use online collaboration technology to give quick insights into your team and to stay engaged by setting and tracking team progress. One of these tools is Weekdone, which has helped hundreds of remote teams to stay productive and engaged.