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Managing Remote Teams


I have visited many councils during this amalgamation period. Many managers have discussed with me the logistics of managing team members who are located some distance away from their usual office. Many have raised the difficulties this presents compared to their previous circumstance where all their team members were situated in close proximity.


The fact of managers dealing with remote team members is not new. Most international organisations today have team members scattered across the globe and still must develop a sense of camaraderie among the team members. The rules for dealing with remote team members is, not surprisingly, any different than dealing with team members who sit within a few metres of each other. I remember some years ago I was the assistant manager of a large suburban bank branch. Attached to the main office was a sub-branch on the other side of the railway line which divided the suburb. On my third day on the job I went to visit the sub-branch and was greeted with total surprise and shock. Apparently in the memory of some of the staff (going back 20 years) no manager had ever visited the sub-branch to either meet the staff or discuss work issues. I was equally surprised that this was the case.


Here are some considerations for those managers who now find themselves in charge of staff in distant or remote settings:


  • All staff are people working to get jobs done. They all want to feel part of either the team and/or the organisation. Managers must put in effort to ensure that those staff do feel part of the larger group. Yes it will take some additional time to build the connections and that is the primary job of the manager.

  • You will need to set clear and specific expectations for all team members. This is even more important as for some staff members you might only see them occasionally and you will need to be confident that the work is being done. It would also be prudent to establish a set of ground rules for the whole team in how they will engage with each other, deal with misunderstandings, report on progress etc. Remember that one of the greatest failings of managers is setting agreed expectations either at the individual level or for the team.

  • Visit on a regular basis. This is easier to say that do but remember your team members do want to see you face to face as often as possible. All relationships are built on personal interactions both informally and formally. You might agree that the team will meet on a fortnightly basis at various locations so that all share in the travel demands. Also remember that each team members will want (and needs) some one-on-one time with you their manager.

  • The key to all personal and professional relationships is communication. You will want to establish how members will communicate to each other be it email, phone, skype, post etc. it would also be beneficial for agreements between team members in how quickly they are expected to respond to each other. We all know that with the barrage of email today it can be difficult to respond to all in a timely manner. However team members need to agree on their expectations of each other to ensure a cohesive a supportive team environment.

  • You will need to find ways to create ‘impromptu’ moments to build a feeling of closeness rather than isolation. All staff can be part of this but you, the manager, will need to ensure it happens. Most managers today are overworked on operational matters and can easily forget the team matters. With remote staff this could be a fatal error. Consider the little pieces of news and events that staff situated together just experience because they are there. Work at being inclusive of all team members on the little things that matter.

Harvard Business Review, February 2015, published some principles to remember:


Do:

  • Get to know your remote reports on a personal level

  • Establish a schedule of communications between you and the remote staff and the remote staff and the rest of the team

  • Use video technology to create spontaneous interactions

  • Work at being inclusive on all matters affecting the team

Don’t:

  • Evaluate job performance differently for remote staff – apply the same measures to all staff

  • Forget to acknowledge a good job for remote staff their efforts must be equally acknowledged

  • Confuse frequent visits for predictable visits. It is better that all staff know when you will be visiting and always, always, always turn up when you say you will

  • Forget that they are people too with needs, desires, and fears etc. you are their manager and they are looking to you to guide them on this journey

In summary remote teams are not that much different from closely situated teams.

To be effective as their manager it will take some time, effort and thinking to succeed. But always remember if you are not sure on any of the matters about how to effectively manage remote staff – just ask them. They will happily tell you what they need from you. You might be the first manager to ask them.

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