January 22nd, 2016
It’s increasingly common to work with people who you’ve never met or who may be in a different town or even be a different time zone. Working in a remote team isn’t intrinsically more difficult than working with people who are sitting across the room from you, but it is different and it does demand some adaptations.
Here are seven key factors to take into account.
Don’t treat remote employees and in-house staff differently. Some employees may be slightly jealous or even resentful of employees who get to work from home. Remote employees may feel that in-house staff receives more perks (eg, catered lunches and social functions). You will exacerbate the problem if you treat the two groups differently, so ensure that you are assigning equal, fair workloads, offering the same perks and benefits, and creating learning and growth opportunities for everyone.
Communicate! Remote workers lack those ‘water-cooler’ conversations that give people an opportunity to bounce ideas off one another outside the context of a formal meeting. Your remote team members need to be encouraged to do the same things. Pick up the phone and call another team member to discuss a potential idea. Use tools like Skype, Google Hangouts or any other video-conferencing software to keep them in the loop.
If you leave employees in the dark, they will soon feel confused, isolated and even angry. Make sure that you are updating virtual employees of any changes, decisions or plans that affect them. And make sure you do it before they hear the news from someone else.
Remember, when people work remotely, they rely on their managers for the context they need to work effectively. What might be seen as over-communicating if you were all in the same office can be critical information when someone is working at home on the other side of the country.
Be responsive. If you force employees to wait for your response or help, they lose precious time. Worse, they may opt to go above your head for answers. And if teammates constantly slow progress because they don’t respond quickly enough, it is frustrating for everyone involved. Set a ground rule that every team member, including you, must respond to one another within 24 hours, even if that is to say nothing more than “I got your message, and I will follow up no later than …”
Strike the right balance of meetings. Too many meetings are overkill and are a huge drain on productivity. However, if you aren’t scheduling time for the entire team to connect and collaborate, employees will become distant and teamwork will suffer. In addition, you need to make sure that you are talking one-on-one with each of your virtual staffers at least weekly to check their progress, troubleshoot problems they are having, and update them on any developments or changes.
Evaluate how the team is functioning. You need to take time to assess how well the team is communicating, collaborating and problem solving. Schedule a team meeting at least quarterly to analyse your productivity and performance and to establish plans for making needed improvements.
Get to know your remote workers. Employees want to know that you care about them as people, not just as workers. It’s harder to do that when you never see them. Don’t forget to learn about remote workers’ families, hobbies, interests and lives outside of work. A little small talk at the beginning of each call or meeting offers you an opportunity to build relationships with and among your staffers and will make them feel more connected to the organization.
Support your managers. Any organisation with remote staff or virtual teams needs to support the people who are expected to manage them. So you need to do more than simply hand a list of employees to managers and expect them to figure it out for themselves. They’ll need help to recognise the similarities and differences between the way we’ve worked traditionally and the new world of virtual work.
Similarly, organisations need to provide the technology and tools to achieve the goals you’ve set. You can’t hold people accountable for failure if you’re not giving them the tools they need to do the work.
Finally, create expectations for remote team leaders that reflect the way they function. “Management by walking around” is fine, but it’s a long walk to Bangalore. Yes, the work appears the same. But there are skills that are unique to that environment: appropriate use of technology, ability to engage employees, managing performance from a distance all need to be built into the way we choose, assess, coach and promote managers.
Wayne Turmel helps companies and their people learn the communication and presentation skills to sell, train, present and manage their teams using any web presentation platform. He is the founder of Greatwebmeetings.com, a co-founder of The Remote Leadership Institute and the author of Meet Like you Mean it, a book that helps virtual and remote teams collaborate more effectively.