Friday, March 11, 2011

Can Remote Teams Work Together?

Chances are, if you manage a team it bears little resemblance to the one in your employee handbook. The way we work is changing faster than HR can update the policies and procedures. This isn’t a knock on HR, just the reality of how fast things are changing out there. That means that managers need to be proactive and handle their teams themselves without waiting for their company to tell them what to do.

Just how fast are things changing? Well according to a study by Booz and company, by 2014 over 50% of the workforce in the Europe, the UK and North America will be working “flexibly”. This means either working remotely all the time, telecommuting occasionally or just when you need them most, your team members will be somewhere other than the desk across from you. Maybe you’re experiencing it now and trying to keep up. Here’s some help. Here are 10 tips to do so:

Take time to assess your team’s attitude, talents and goals. Who do you have working for you? Do they have what it takes to make a team work? Where do they need coaching, help or encouragement?

Provide access to decision makers. If the team has to rely on your for information and access to decision makers, they will not be proactive or feel empowered. At the very least you become the touch point for every little decision and the chokepoint for all communication. Who wants to work that hard?

Set communication expectations. A good communication plan contains not only the expectations about how and how often to communicate, but what tools to use.

Make sure everyone has access to communication tools and knows how to use them effectively. It’s one thing to say “we’ve given you the tools, now use them”. It’s something else again to monitor their usage and identify why people are (or more likely, aren’t) utilizing them. Remember, when it comes to adopting technology, one person’s “intuitive” is another person’s pain in the uhhhh neck.

Share the workload where possible. Delegation is a key leadership skill, but with remote teams, many times we tend to micromanage processes. Tasks like meeting leadership and taking ownership of project milestones are great ways to not only develop the skills of your people and help build trust between team members, but makes your workload simpler.

Use both synchronous and non-synchronous communication tools. Synchronous tools are things like the telephone, instant message and video conferencing that allow everyone to see and say the same thing at the same time. Non-synchronous (or asynchronous) tools allow for things like being in different time zones, going back and referring to documents. They also allow for communication to go on when it’s not time-sensitive and allows people to do things like actually think and carefully craft answers to questions. Your team needs to use the full range of tools at your disposal.

Use a shared workflow tool. A common process creates a common language. It’s also important for long-term team success that people know what others on the team are doing. A shared tool like SharePoint, Office Communicator or others helps. I don’t care if you hate it, use it.

Systematically build social capital. Systematically, as in “on purpose”. Social capital is made up of the little things human beings do for each other that make us want to pull together. Make jokes, ask how the kids are. Remember that your team is not made up of disembodied employee numbers, but real people.

Invest in face-to-face contact whenever possible. I know the whole idea of working virtually is to reduce costs, but the costs of teams not pulling together are much higher than the occasional airfare and hotel bill.

Find a means to establish managerial and corporate presence. Managers need to be involved on a regular basis with their teams. Almost as important is the company to remain a real presence in people’s lives. No team pulls together for a faceless, soulless, big brother corporation. They do pull together when there’s a shared goal and pride in what they’re doing.

Managers need to take action now, and help their organizations develop best practices that will help everyone deal with the way we really work today. If we wait for corporate policies to catch up, we’ll find ourselves struggling unnecessarily and losing ground in the meantime

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