Managing remote teams: what to remember
In my career, I managed both traditional teams sharing the same office and remote teams from different countries and time zones. In post COVID-19 era managing remote teams has become increasingly common as many organisations moved to hybrid and remote-first ways of working. From my experience, a remote team requires more time and diligence to become a well-oiled system.
There are a few reasons for that:
- Communication is harder. People are not available for in-person communication in a traditional way. The available communication channels are less efficient and do not pass all the information. It may be received as distorted.
- Lower trust. Simply people from the same team don't know each other well enough to build trust or they don't know their manager.
- Corporate culture gaps. Especially when the teams are from different countries. Even within the same organisation corporate culture may be uneven or vary in different locations. I reckon it's hard to nurture a corporate culture when an organisation has a big fraction of remote staff.
How do I work with this as a manager?
Poor communication causes misalignment. It's the worst evil!
Once I assigned a task to a remote team member to deal with an urgent customer request and just told them it is urgent. I assumed they would come back to me with regular status updates on the progress because it was urgent. Nobody came back with an update until I explicitly asked again and then again. In the end, the person thought, I was micromanaging them. It was a misalignment when I expected a progress update. The Slack channel I used required more effort to delegate the task properly. Instead, I assumed the word "urgent" would make it clear that I was looking for regular updates.
Another example, I had a remote team member who was one of the senior squad leads with ample domain knowledge. And the issue with the team was the knowledge was not shared and that person at times was a bottleneck. For example, when it came to production incidents, he was the go-to person to deal with them. It was not good, as I wanted every team member capable of dealing with them. Once he wrote to me his manager, "I am in meetings..". It meant he would skip another call I had together. I asked: "What meetings did he have about?". Then he mentioned: "It was a production incident". Then I said: "Is anyone else in the team involved in the discussion?" - to validate my assumption he was the only one. The answer was: "No". My intention was to get information about the incident and confirm my assumption that we needed to think about how to improve our incident management process. However, the person thought something like: "My manager did not trust me because he asked too many questions about it.."
It is essential to establish clear lines of communication and ensure that team members are kept up-to-date on any changes or updates. Communication should be frequent and consistent to ensure that everyone is on the same page. All modern video calling tools are very helpful. Managers should ensure that team members have the necessary technology and tools to do their work. This may include video conferencing software, project management tools, and collaboration software.
Based on my example above, setting clear goals and expectations is essential when managing a remote team. It includes when we delegate a task as well as setting clear performance goals. Ensure that team members understand what is expected of them.
Lack of trust is more typical in remote teams than in traditional teams. People need more time to get to know each other and their manager. Managers should ensure that team members feel supported and valued, even if they are not physically present. This can be achieved by offering regular feedback and recognition for good work.
Once I underestimated this factor and didn't spend enough time working with the remote team to build mutual trust. I assumed that people would trust me by default or because I said: "You can trust me!" In that team, it was hard for me to get a buy for certain changes without a good level of trust.
it is important to gain trust over time by demonstrating skills, reliability and intimacy. It requires months of work together.
Corporate culture gaps
I would like to focus here on one aspect. only: how aligned are remote teams around core business values and culture? If they do, managing remote teams becomes easier as you share common values and almost speak the same language. If they don't it's another factor to work with.
Once I had a team from a different location that demonstrated a different attitude to work. And I realised it was part of their local corporate culture. It was not good or bad. It was different. Specifically, the team was very sensitive to spikes in workload. In our local branch, people demonstrated better resistance to it. It was typical in our fast-paced environment. However, it was not typical in that location/domain. So I had a hard time with them when we had to deliver an important product on time.
I think, addressing the corporate culture gaps should be a corporate-wide mission. The more aligned remote teams are on core values, is better for the whole organisation and for the managers. The alignment starts with hiring the right people in the organisation. As a manager, I think feedback is the right tool to partially address this. You can work with your remote teams to promote the behaviours aligned with the culture and dsicourage the ones that are misaligned. Some behaviours can be changed. Some not. In some cases, certain people should leave the organisation if they are misaligned and are not keen to change.
General people's cultural differences is another board topic that I am not touching on here.
In conclusion, managing remote teams requires a different approach to traditional team management. By focusing on communication, technology, goals, trust, and corporate culture, managers can effectively manage remote teams and achieve their goals.