Managing Remote Teams

Sometimes I feel like Wilma Flintstone when I talk about the remote access options I had when I started working, and it wasn’t even that long ago. Dial up? No cell phones? How did we live? Now I can do about 60% of my job with just my Blackberry, and I can do the other 40% from any computer with an internet connection. While advances in remote access and flexible work options have been multiplying like bunnies, management practices have been slower to catch up. Many companies are still reluctant to allow people to work from anywhere, even though their technology supports it. The old school thinking assumes that if you can’t see your people working, they must not be.

But change is happening. Sometimes one person at a time, companies are slowly integrating flexibility into every department across the enterprise. Not only salespeople or customer service representatives, but accountants and HR managers are discovering the benefits of working from home (or anywhere really)! With this great new flexibility comes a change in how management happens. The old paradigms that were created with the 9-5 office workforce don’t work as well when people are not physically in the same space, and especially when people are working on vastly different schedules.

The More Things Change…
The old adage holds true – the more things change, the more they stay the same. Some of the fundamentals of running a team stay exactly the same no matter where your people are located. Here are some examples:

  1. Communication – You will still need to keep the lines of communication open between yourself and your team, as well as your team members. If you used to have a team meeting on Friday mornings, keep doing it! Get together at a coffee shop or the office if you are physically near one another, or use technology to have a virtual chat session using a tool like Virtual Meeting or Skype. Use IM or the phone to make sure you are touching base consistently.
  2. Clear Goals – Whether your people are in the next room or half way around the world, clearly defined goals are the best way to get results. Spend some time using the SMART goal planning process so that you know you and your team are on the same page about what’s important and when it’s due. Teams with clear goals move forward efficiently – teams that lack direction flounder and waste time.
  3. Feedback – It’s actually harder to stay motivated when you are working alone than when you are surrounded by activity. This is especially true if you’re struggling with a challenge. Keep on top of what the people on your team are working on and offer support, feedback and direction on a regular basis. Be responsive if questions or concerns arise, and hold people to deadlines. Small corrections to steer your team in the right direction are much easier than drastic adjustments if things are off the rails.

New Tools
While the fundamentals are the same, the processes of running a remote team are different and vary depending on the industry and type of work that you are doing. Most flexible environments (especially when people are working during different times of the day) require some tools to keep everyone up to date. From simple tools like IM, email and voicemail to more complex project management packages like Central Desktop or SharePoint, there are plenty of options to allow you to interact with your team members, and in turn for individuals on the team to work with one another.

BNET published a great list of tools for remote teams, but technology continues to evolve at a rapid pace so any article on this topic is outdated a week after it’s written. Cloud based solutions are becoming more prevalent and can be an excellent solution for distributed users. When you are considering tools for your team, be sure to prioritize what’s important for your individual situation. For example a sales team will need a real time CRM solution where they can log interactions with customers so that other members of the team have up to date information about the status of proposals and the sales process. An HR team will need the ability to receive and distribute information such as resumes in an efficient manner, and will probably need to have an excellent document management solution. No matter what industry or functional group your team operates in, there are solutions for your specific situation.

Ultimately a well run remote team has to operate as a ROWE. What’s that, you ask? It’s a Results Only Work Environment. The most well known company to implement a ROWE was Best Buy in 2007 . The concept is deceptively simple – judge people on the work they do, not where or how it gets done. Many organizations have embraced the concept of performance metrics either through the implementation of the balanced scorecard or through compliance frameworks such as ITIL and COBIT (in the tech world). So ideally transitioning to a ROWE is as easy as defining success metrics for each position and then focusing solely on those metrics to measure the performance of each individual contributor.

While your organization may not be ready to transition fully to this model, understanding the mechanics of the ROWE will help as you craft policies for flexible and remote workers.

Potential Pitfalls
As with every major shift in process, transitioning from a team that works together in an office to a distributed workgroup can present some challenges. No matter how well your communication tools work, there are some things that get lost in translation. Here are some things to watch out for as you move towards a remote workforce:

Lack of Collaboration – If your team members are being judged solely on their own performance and being allowed to create a totally flexible schedule, it can put a big damper on teamwork. If I’ve finished my work for the week and am planning to head out for a long weekend, why should I stop and help a team member with a project that doesn’t actually count towards my own goals? You will still need to foster a sense of teamwork and collaboration, and reward people for supporting one another wherever possible.

Efficiency – There’s no doubt that it’s easier to grab your team and pull them into a conference room for a quick stand up meeting when you are all in the same space. Doing this across the miles, particularly when some team members are working odd hours can be challenging. You may end up wasting a lot of time waiting for an opportunity when everyone is available at once. There are two main ways to deal with this challenge:

  1. Use collaboration tools that include forums and create a discussion point for the issue rather than trying to do it in real time. The 2-3 days you might spend finding a time that works on everyone’s calendar can be used to debate the point in asynchronous sessions.
  2. Have an ad-hoc dial up conference calling service and have 2-5 windows of time during the week where team members are required to be available by phone. You don’t have to use them, but if you need to grab everyone for a quick virtual meeting, pick the next available slot and tell everyone it’s a mandatory call.

Getting Disconnected – I mean this both in the literal sense and metaphorically as well. Remote teams are highly dependent on technology, and sooner or later a time will come when something disrupts the flow of information. Whether it’s an outage in the main office or some other situation that causes one or more people to be without their tools, contingency plans are a must for remote teams. While you will have to balance the number of access points to your systems against your organizational and industry need for security, the more ways that people can work, the better as far as productivity is concerned.

But what about the other kind of disconnect? In order to maintain a strong sense of community between your team members, your communication skills need to be exceptional. A manager who sees their team members every day can pick up on their moods, their ups and downs, their frustrations through observing body language. With a remote team you will need to be far more proactive about responding to small hints and clues in email and voicemail. Tone of voice and tenor of communication become highly important. When in doubt ask extra questions and clarify anything that seems questionable. Don’t let frustration fester – address issues quickly and clearly to prevent a small irritation from becoming a big mess.

Managing a remote team is both art and science. There is no single solution that will work for all people in all situations. Personalities come into play, as does the nature of the work your team is doing. You’ll probably need a trial and error period to figure out what works and what doesn’t. This is a great time to get feedback from your team about what’s working for them and make this a collaborative effort for everyone involved. But the rewards of creating a flexible environment are big. Check out these results from a Cisco survey completed in 2008 and published by SHRM:

  • 83 percent said their ability to communicate and collaborate with workers was the same, if not better, as when they worked on-site.
  • 75 percent said the timeliness of their work improved.
  • 69 percent reported higher productivity. Sixty percent of the time they saved via telecommuting they applied to work; the other 40 percent they applied to personal use.
  • 67 percent of workers said the overall quality of their work improved.

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