We live in a super connected world where organizations span across geographies and cultures. Every day in the office we meet colleagues, partners, customers using technologies such a phone, email, video conferencing and we must learn how to work with them even if not sitting face to face. One of the most challenging situations is having responsibility for a remote team. How do you make the most of such arrangement? How do you ensure your team performs to the best of their abilities? How do you truly lead? How do you ensure your visibility to the team so they are able to follow you?
For the sake of simplicity let me draw a typical scenario that we will follow thought this article. Imagine you are a manager of twenty people divided into four teams of five. One team sits in your location, the rest sits offshore eight hours away. Now, let us go through some of the most important and often overlooked aspects of remote management.
Out of sight, out of mind
This is the most common issue you can see when people work with global teams. Managing remote team will cost you more conscious effort than managing locally. It is very easy to forget that you have remote team members and if you are not careful you can create a serious problem for yourself and your team. When you ask for information do you ask the person who is the most qualified to give you the answer or do you ask the person who sits in the cubicle next to you? When you think about organizational structure or promotions do you understand the strengths of the people in remote location or do you just promote people sitting next to you as you have detail visibility into what they are doing so it feels like they are the right candidates for the job? When you think about who to use for a new assignment or project, do you ask for volunteers in the remote team or will you just give it to guy in your office as you remember that last week he told you at lunch he might be interested in it?
Missing water cooler
In most organizations lots of ideas and even decisions come from informal discussions “around water cooler”. Obviously, if you have part of the team remote they won’t be able to be part of the discussion unless you make it a point to give them at least a chance. So when you go for lunch with your local team how do you ensure that the ideas you discussed are shared with the remote team? When you share information with a team member you just met in the hallway how do you ensure it gets also to the guys sitting across the ocean? How do you ensure that there is enough interaction also at the social level so even if distributed it still feels like having one team?
We are all different
People are different. Even in your local team you may need to change a bit your management style when dealing with different people and different personalities and the same applies when working globally. What makes it even more challenging is that the chances are that aside of individual personalities you will have to deal with subtle or not so subtle cultural differences. How do you get open and honest feedback from the remote team? How do you ensure that you understand what “yes” actually means? Curiously enough it can mean different things in different cultures. How do you ensure people ask questions and come for clarifications? How do you ensure that when you speak with the remote team that doesn’t have English as their native language that they really understand what you are saying?
There are many more things you need to be aware of and focus on when working with remote teams but the ones I outlined are the most critical. The goal of the first part of this article was to make you think. So think and keep asking these questions to yourself in your everyday work. Make sure you ask these questions yourself every time you make a decision or share information. And now let me give you some ideas on how to answer these questions. I will introduce the basic concepts and get into more details next week…
What can you do to remove the barriers coming from the global setup?
Mindset – it is all about the way you think about your organization. I assume there is a good reason why you have a global team so always keep reminding yourself what is the goal you are trying to achieve. Do you look at your oversees workers as at cheap labor or do you want to create organization that is scalable, that gives you ability to tap vast talent pool across several continents, that gives you a chance to use strengths of different cultures, that gives you ability to be closer to your customers and that gives your team the satisfaction of working with and learning from people with different educational and cultural background?
Communication – you need to over communicate. Get into a habit of sharing as much information as possible in as many different ways as possible. Never assume anything, always ask for verification, put special focus on the social aspect of building the team, ensure you treat people equally and you provide equal opportunities to people regardless where they sit.
Processes – tweak the processes within your organization in such a way that they work even across distances. Do you hold meetings in the afternoon when your remote team already sleeps? Well, change it so they can participate. Again these things will take some effort and will be painful at the beginning but will pay dividends in long-term.
Twitter type summary: “Leading remote teams requires more conscious effort than managing locally as you need to keep reminding yourself of their existence.”
What are the questions one should keep asking to understand the art of managing remote teams?