Managing a remote team

Written by Graham Scrivener on 1 April 2014 in Features
Features

“Are your leaders’ virtual management skills up to the job?” asks Graham Scrivener

We are a business nation that is embracing flexible and remote working. Three million Britons now work from home, according to the Office of National Statistics1 (an increase of a third over the last ten years) and, with new flexible working legislation due to come into force on 30th June this year, this figure is certainly set to rise.

Companies, apart from the rare few like Yahoo, which, last year, banned remote working, are recognising the benefits of distance working for both the organisation and its people. Enabling staff to communicate wherever and whenever – home, customer and suppliers’ locations or regional offices around the globe – means faster response times, increased operational speeds and the ability to adapt to changes in the market much more quickly; which are all requirements for surviving in today’s flatter, decentralised and geographically-dispersed global economy. Added to this are the savings made on office overheads and the ability to attract a more diverse pool of talent that may not have been amenable to the traditional nine-to-five routine.

Staff also reap rewards, with greater autonomy and more flexibility to balance work around home-life. But for leaders, the change in the way we are working is bringing new challenges.

Although remote working is becoming standard practice in the majority of organisations, with most leaders expecting to have to manage a mix of office-based and remotely-located team members, modern-day leaders and their virtual management skills are being tested even further. The fallout from the recession and cuts to the workforce means today’s managers are often overseeing teams scattered across different countries, on top of their regional teams who juggle time between home, office and customers’ locations. Meanwhile the manager will be doing the same – moving from location to location, leaving very little time for any face-to-face contact.

Leaders not only have to maintain high levels of motivation, engagement and creativity from a distance but they need to be considerate of teams working across different time zones and cultures to create a ‘virtual office space’ that unites and encourages great performance. The luxury of being able to directly oversee work or employ intuition gained from face-to-face contact to spot a problem has long gone. No more quick coffee breaks with a team member to check how they are getting on or to exchange ideas.

Remote leaders need to be skilled in driving results with little face-to-face contact, ‘reading between the lines’ from afar and engaging, inspiring and building trust in a team with technology as their main source of communication.

Get it right and the rewards can be reaped through greater flexibility, speed and productivity. But get it wrong and the business will have an isolated, disengaged and underperforming team on its hands.

The good news is that, when a remote team is managed effectively, distance does not stop them from developing the ‘chemistry for success’. In fact, studies have shown that, with the appropriate leadership focus, remote teams often outperform office-based ones even when some of them have never met face-to-face2. Such teams have leaders who know how to utilise the advantages of working remotely, such as round-the-clock customer service and greater autonomy that encourages members to take responsibility and develop their skills.

But leading a remote workforce does not come naturally to most managers and requires skills that need to be taught, refined and constantly developed. Most know that they still have to build relationships, communicate all aspects of the business, develop innovation and creativity, and drive performance and results whether the team is based in the same office or somewhere else. But often they struggle to know how to do this when they have little or no face-to-face contact.

Leading a remote team based around the globe is virtually the same as managing an office-based one, but it is not absolutely identical. It requires more thought about the way you operate than managing co-located teams. Great leaders will play to the strengths of a remote team but will also pay attention to the things they may have taken for granted in the past, like the casual walk past the desk. By adopting three distinct leadership actions – ‘mitigate the differences’, ‘extend their reach’ and ‘leverage the right technology’ – great leaders will overcome any challenges. They will build on the opportunities of having a remote team and generate the same end result – a highly motivated and productive team – whether members are in or out of the office.

Mitigate the differences

Time, space and culture are three factors that challenge any leader whether their teams are remotely based or in the office. Scheduling a conference call on a single time zone is tricky enough but these challenges intensify when the team is located in different countries, in various time zones and cultures.

Leaders with remote and internationally-based teams need to pay closer attention to the potential impact of time, distance and culture and be intentional in their actions to overcome any risks that these factors could pose to the team’s drive and performance.

Time differences need to be considered carefully. When scheduling conference calls, great leaders rotate the time, so it fair for all team members, and do equal visits to each region, so as not to be favouring one team member above another. They clarify deadlines so each country is clear when actions need to be met specific to their region and time zone, and they understand the ways different cultures value time, for example it may be considered a scarce resource in some countries, so the more efficiently you work, the more value you add to the business, whereas others may see time as plentiful and may not have as strong a sense of urgency.

Great leaders overcome the lack of face-to-face contact by using technology effectively, learning how to trust their team and knowing how to read between the lines virtually.

Trust between a leader and the team is one of the most important factors when managing remotely. Distance means leaders not only need to trust their team to get on with their job, but as Forum’s recent Global Leadership Pulse survey revealed3, trust has a direct impact on levels of engagement. Great managers turn the autonomy that flexible, remote working has to offer into a chance to show they trust their teams with certain responsibilities and tasks, which leaves members feeling empowered, engaged and connected – despite the distance. These feelings will then translate into increased motivation and performance.

The last thing leaders should do is overcompensate for distance by continually checking up on individuals and continuously asking what they are doing. This just takes time and energy, which turns into resentment from the team. Instead, it is important to trust individuals while knowing how much support to provide and the best way to communicate. This will vary depending on the individual and his location, for example a high achiever will not expect to be contacted as much as a new starter nor will he, perhaps, need as many face-to-face meetings or virtual conference calls.

Then there is the feeling of alienation that remote workers can be susceptible to if they go for long periods of time without personal contact. Web and video conferencing is a good way to combat this problem, as well as offering an alternative to the costly exercise of arranging a face-to-face meeting with teams located around the globe. Video conferences are also a chance to pick up on any physical cues.

However, great leaders do not just rely on web conferencing to read between the lines. The space between them and their teams means they need to learn how to spot potential or existing problems from a distance. Using effective questioning techniques and active listening skills, they can identify any change in tone, pitch or pace of exchange in the conversation to spot any possible issues within their teams. These skills are even more important when leading teams that may be set up to work from home and, therefore, struggle to switch off during personal time, leading to an exhausted and unproductive team.

Culture is the third difference to be aware of when leading an international, remotely-located team. Managers need to be conscious of certain religious holidays and that weekends do not always fall on a Saturday or Sunday in other regions, as such factors can have an impact on performance and deadlines if managed incorrectly. Managers should consider the impact of any language barriers, check any possible misinterpretations and actively ensure that their team have thoroughly understood instructions.

Extend your REACH

Effective leaders also overcome the negative aspects of leading remotely, such as the time, space and cultural challenges, by ‘extending their reach’ using five tried and tested leadership practices:

  • they emphasise Responsiveness by being available to remote staff, whether local or international, as much as they are to office-based teams. They do this by working flexibly and making themselves accessible in many ways through a variety of communication channels - email, phone, text or in person - choosing the channel that best suits the individual in the team. They intervene at the correct times, ‘check in’ with the team regularly and seek out those that do not respond
  • they use Empathy. They are transparent with team members about any differences among them and create opportunities for the team to learn about, and from, each other. They intentionally encourage team members to understand each other’s perspectives, traditions, languages and ways of thinking, and use this knowledge when interacting and considering others’ viewpoints
  • great leaders accelerate Accountability. They identify who is accountable for meeting certain goals to build a sense of ownership in the team and clearly state, taking into consideration language barriers, what is expected of individuals and what, why and when things need to be delivered
  • they create Connection, using technology to build links between the team and the organisation but knowing when face-to-face meetings are a must and who needs more close contact to help achieve great results
  • they respond speedily to requests for Help and anticipate when support may be needed. They regularly offer assistance and know the needs of each team member at all times.

Create virtual work spaces

Creating that connection with your team is key, as any good leader knows, and using the right communication and collaboration technology can help to build these relationships successfully with a remote workforce.

Unfortunately, often managers tend to stick to the technologies they know best, using tools which may not be the most effective at communicating at a distance. For example, email is a poor tool for team discussions as the whole team is copied into conversation threads, leading to email overload and, over time, members ignoring emails from each other.

It is important to know what works best in certain situations but to also take time to explore technology so leaders can create virtual work spaces that truly surpass the ‘real’ life ones.

Continuous development

Transferring leadership skills from managing teams locally to leading people working remotely or around the world is not something that happens overnight. It needs to be built into a continuous personal development programme, taught from junior management level upwards.

As part of any ongoing development, managers should be encouraged to conduct a regular skills audit on themselves so they spot any areas that need improving. They should gather feedback from their team on their leadership style – a collaborative approach that will help engage, and gain the trust of, their team – and ensure that they all receive regular coaching and advice on working remotely, such as good time- and stress-management skills and coping strategies.

Remote working is the norm today, with a growing proportion of people now working at a distance, linked only by technology. While this way of working certainly brings business benefits such as speed, adaptability, and the potential to recruit from a wider pool of talent, leading a team that is spread across various locations does require a different tack to managing office-based staff.

These are not skills that are easily transferable – from office manager to remote leader – but they are ones that can be successfully developed with the right guidance and support. It may require investment in training and development now but any return through a more flexible, engaged and highly-performing team will far outstrip the time and money invested.

A fully-referenced version of this article is available on request.

About the author

Graham Scrivener is MD of Forum EMEA, a global leadership development and sales training solutions provider. He can be contacted via www.forumemea.co.uk

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