Web 2.0 was the technology that allowed users to interact in real-time with websites – and led to the explosion of social media, such as Facebook and Twitter. For businesses, it created new possibilities for more innovative products and services, more effective marketing, better access to knowledge, lower cost of doing business, and higher revenues. In its wake, the emergence of cheap, reliable broadband and mobile data made it possible for people to work both productively and remotely, for the first time. Companies were quick to see the benefits of employing at least some remote workers, as it enabled them to extend their search for talent outside ‘commuting distance’ of the office and offer current employees the chance to work more flexibly.
However, for this new way of working to truly succeed, a shift was required in the approach to leading and managing teams which were no longer co-located. But what exactly did managers need to do differently to make sure their remote team could perform satisfactorily? Managing people when they are based in the same building can be difficult enough. You have to constantly juggle your priorities to support individuals and the team as a whole so the work can get delivered on time. When your people work in a different location (or country) it just adds further dimensions of complexity and difficulty to your role.
The major risks for a manager of a remote team are widely reported, and include:
- Employee disengagement: out of sight, out of mind; isolation.
- Misinterpretation of communications, through an absence of non-verbal signals.
- Low levels of trust, due to limited opportunities for informal socialising.
- Not gaining timely, accurate information to keep track of progress.
- Lack of ready support for team members.
- Inappropriate use of technology, such as e-mail, for high-emotion situations.
- Burn-out, extra-long working days crossing different time zones.
Conventional wisdom suggests that the performance of teams suffers from increasing levels of dispersion. Because of that, managers have typically viewed dispersion as a liability rather than an opportunity. However, our research shows that remote teams can sometimes outperform their co-located counterparts if they are set up and managed in the right way. The key success factor, it seems, is good communication.
Good communication, always an important management skill, is critical if a remote team is going to perform well. When your team is remote, messages can be more easily misunderstood or misinterpreted, with potentially disastrous consequences. But if a manager can build trust in the team through regular, planned communications, the physical gap between the team members can be bridged and a genuine team spirit nurtured.
As important as understanding what needs to be communicated, is choosing the right medium: telephone, e-mail, Skype, virtual meeting or face-to-face. Get it wrong and it has the potential for turning a molehill into a mountain! Whether you decide to use e-mails, instant messaging, Web meetings, telephone/video conferencing, or one of the many emerging networking platforms to stay in touch, team members need opportunities to participate, share ideas, collaborate and get to know each other, regardless of where they are located. Regular social contact helps build trust and confidence among team members, helping overcome distances, time zones, and cultural differences.
But which medium should you use for what? Here’s a quick guide:
- Video conferencing is important in situations where the manager needs to be able to assess understanding and engagement e.g. with a new strategy or performance goals.
- Emotionally-charged situations – such as individual performance issues – should be handled face-to-face where at all possible. Failing that, a 1:1 video call can be effective.
- Phone calls are an essential tool for the manager in establishing and sustaining engagement. It can also be a great coaching tool.
- Look at the tools your organisation provides and think about how you can use them in your communication plan.
- Sometimes, the only communication approach that will work effectively is a face-to-face meeting.
- E-mail is a great tool for maintaining a regular flow of information, but it has its limitations and is easily abused. Think before you hit ‘send’!
You will also find it helpful to establish a routine for key communications. It may feel unnatural or overly prescribed, but setting clear meeting agendas and scheduling weekly progress update e-mails and 1:1 check-in calls can save you lots of grief when it comes to developing the performance of a remote team.