22 Jul 2015

Advice on Managing Remote Teams

As organisations expand outside of their domestic markets, they will inevitably face challenges with managing remote teams and will have to decide on the best approaches and tools for internal communication. So, how should teams that work remotely make the most of their situation?

There’s a story of an 18th-century diplomat on a hardship post in Asia who continuously begged to be allowed to leave his post. With delays of a year or more for communications to be exchanged with London, he waited many years in vain for a reply of any kind. Eventually he gathered courage and made his own way back unbidden. On arrival at Whitehall everyone he met expressed surprise that he’d waited so long before returning.

Multinational organisations no longer face the communication delays experienced by early empires, but working in teams that span multiple time zones still poses huge challenges.

How should teams that work remotely make the most of their situation? We’ll look at advice from experienced global teams, and suggest some nifty tools that may help keep remote colleagues working efficiently and harmoniously.

Top tips for remote teams

  • Trying to get everyone together for remote meetings can be a challenge. Multiple smaller meetings may work better than one large one.
  • Many teams swear by the five-minute daily check in.
  • This brief daily meeting helps build rapport and ensure visibility of what everyone is up to, as well as resolving minor issues. Just don’t be tempted to let this creep on too long so that it eats into working time.
  • Invest in tech support. If you’re dependent on the communication technology, make sure glitches can be resolved speedily.
  • Another tip is to have all your teams use the same type of tech as this can minimise disruption and help them work together to share best practices and resolve issues.
  • Allow people the freedom to set their own hours. If you insist all your global staff work 9-5 you’re less likely to get overlap. Some may prefer working 7-3 and this could better synch their working hours with other global offices.
  • If you’re dealing with serious time differences, you may only have a short window in the day to communicate. Make sure this is kept free on both sides.
  • Respect sleep. It’s unsustainable to expect your colleagues to consistently disrupt their body clock. Long term this is likely to incur costs including more absenteeism and potentially more accidents at work. Rested teams work better.
  • Where sleep patterns have to be disturbed, allow people time to recover. It isn’t reasonable to consistently expect people to come straight to the office after a long flight.

Tools for teams

There are a variety of free and low cost online tools and apps available to support your teams as they collaborate remotely.

Here’s just an overview:

It can be useful to run a global calendar like TeamUp for your company and keep it updated with key events such as local holidays as well as other interruptions such as team away days.

  • Hipchat offers internal instant messaging for 1-2-1 and group, as well as some file storage and video chat.
  • Slack offers searchable chat and team collaboration facilities that are well integrated with other file hosting tools your business may be using, such as Dropbox.
  • Sqwiggle offers a fast way to video chat with your team instantly, as well as text chat features. It’s a way to try and bring your teams into more of a shared company culture.
  • Many remote teams swear by Trello, a project management tool that’s particularly good for visual thinkers. Basecamp also offers useful project management features to support remote collaboration on projects.
  • Every Time Zone lets you see instantly what time of day it is for your colleagues.

Don’t micromanage

Working in a team that spans enormous geographical distances is less modern than you’d think.

The Romans mastered control over the activities of their huge empire by creating cutting-edge transport infrastructure. They also created impressive ways to run their empire using a legal framework, bureaucracy and formal delegation of control to local authority figures.

Ultimately this dedication to controlling life in every corner of the empire meant the Romans overreached themselves. The costs of administering their great organisation became too much for the centre to bear and it eventually collapsed.

The British East India Company attempted to organise a global team of empire administrators operating at even greater distance than the Romans. The Company’s approach was a mixture of tight control and laxity. Central power balanced strict bureaucratic controls with enabling local operators the freedom to make decisions in the absence of any steer from London. That was essential at a time when it took many months for communications to be exchanged with the company’s overseas agents.

Modern communication technology enables central management to have much greater visibility and impose much greater control over the various satellite teams across the globe. But just because head office can have complete control does it necessarily mean that it should?

One regional team of a multinational were delighted to have finally recruited the senior HR manager they needed, only to be told that head office 1000 miles away would not give final approval to the hiring.

The reason? The new recruit had failed a personality test based on a sample of their handwriting. Although no one at HQ had met the candidate, they judged her a bad personality fit for the remote team based on the way she used a pen.

Whilst this story is obviously ludicrous, it highlights the problem that occurs when modern communications are combined with overly controlling management. Insisting on overriding the decisions made by remote teams who understand their own local cultural environments and operations is to discard the most useful asset remote teams bring to an organisation – local knowledge.

Overriding their ability to make their own decisions not only leads to resentment but it also ignores the fact that local teams usually have the best understanding of what’s right for their side of the business. The key challenge of handling global teams is making sure everyone is motivated and heading in the same general direction. The temptation to micromanage from a central office should be avoided if your business wants its remote operations to grow and prosper.



 
 

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