05May'14

Tips on Managing a Remote Team (and why it’s worth the effort)

Managing a Remote Team

Decades ago, when face-to-face or written contact were the only plausible methods of communication, it was essential for people to work closely together in the same location.

Then, along came the telephone. Remarkably, the telephone only came into widespread use after the Second World War – and it had a revolutionary effect on business. Gradually, new technologies made their way into the business landscape – fax, mobile technology, email, intranet, broadband – and entire new communication markets exploded onto the business scene.

Suddenly the world realized it could work without walls, and flexible working took centre stage.

But as fast as business owners and employees reveled in this new-found freedom and productivity, it became evident that the cogs of cultural change are painfully slow to turn. Traditional ties are hard to break, and today, generations both old and new continue to cling rigidly to the premise that employees can’t possibly be trusted to get the job done outside of the office.

It’s a familiar scenario, isn’t it? Tell anyone that you’re working from home and you’ll be met with the age-old “Shirking from home?” or “What’s happening on Jeremy Kyle today?”

Trust me, I get it a lot.

In our tech-savvy, always-connected, mobile-digital world, we have the technology to allow remote working practices, and endless studies continue to highlight the enormous positives such methods of working can have on business.

The problem, according to author and managerial expert Steve Lemmex, is people. Managers who have traditionally worked with a line of vision to their team struggle to adjust to alternative working practices. In his white paper released last year, ‘Successfully Managing Remote Teams’, Lemmex found that 90% of the issue is down to “people problems”, while only 10% concerns the utilization of technology. “So it is smart to address your people issues first,” he said.

With this in mind, let’s take a closer look at some best practice solutions when managing a remote team:

Choose the right people: For a start, not everyone can, or wants to, work in a remote environment. Some just aren’t cut out for it, and the reality is far, far different from the fantasy. You need organized self-starters who can prioritize workloads, get their head down and simply get stuff done. If you’re in any doubt or if your candidate has no track record of working remotely, consider a trial period first.

Reiterate purposes: It might help you and your team to have a role refresh. Go over your end objectives and outline your team members’ roles and responsibilities. You could even draw up a set of guidelines or a spreadsheet detailing specific roles and tasks. Benchmarks like these can be enormously useful and can help to provide a stronger sense of purpose on those quiet, lonely days.

Set results-driven targets: Spoon-feeding remote workers is out. Working remotely is all about trust, and if you’re continually checking up or asking for updates, you’ll create a distracting and suffocating atmosphere. Instead, opt for results-driven targets. Set deadlines or milestones on specific tasks and use online project management tools to help reach these objectives. Which brings us onto our next point…

Tools: It goes without saying that online collaboration tools are essential to help keep things moving. Project management technologies like Asana are handy for setting targets and deadlines, sharing tasks, setting reminders and keeping things humming along. There are plenty of free collaboration tools out there and powerful premium ones too. One word of advice, stipulate that the team sticks to that method rather than sending constant emails back and forth. Email is a productivity drain and a constant source of distraction, so try to keep usage to a minimum.

This blog post from Zapier offers an interesting case study into how the company manages a remote team. Skip to their advice on ‘Tools’ and you’ll see how they harness everything from chat rooms and Trello to-do lists to daily updates with iDoneThis.

Communication is everything. EVERYTHING: Be sure to schedule in regular talk time with your team, and don’t forget occasional face-to-face contact. Yes, it’s painstakingly traditional in our digital world. But it works. There’s nothing quite like a face-to-face meet-up over coffee or a team gathering to fire up the motivational and creative juices. And be sure to set up weekly calls via tools like Skype or join.me. You don’t always need the video element – voice chat works just fine.

Define a resolution strategy: Lemmex makes a valid point in recommending various resolution strategies, should things go wrong. Among them, consider team conflict, dispute of team responsibilities, work distribution and missed deadlines. Remember, just because things go wrong does not mean you should haul everyone back into the office. Explore new ways to work through it, re-set targets and objectives and above all, give it time. Success doesn’t happen overnight.

The question on many a manager and business owner’s mind is: “It’s a hassle. Why bother?”

If countless research papers are to be believed, it’s certainly worth the effort. ‘The Flex Factor‘, a report released in July 2013 by Julian Thompson and Prof. Edward Truch, found that on an organizational level, their optimal flexible working environment model experienced the following benefits:

  • Productivity: 5.1 productive hours per week gained per employee, equating to c. £4200 per annum per employee
  • Cost savings: £650 per annum/per employee saving on desk space; £100 on printing
  • Skills utilization: a significant correlation between better utilization of skills and flexibility
  • Overall: flexible working accounts for 5 percent of organizational performance

And, consider this. The Office of National Statistics (ONS) estimated that the value of the UK’s human capital – that’s collective knowledge, skills and capabilities – is worth an eye-watering £17 trillion. Even marginal improvements in productivity, efficiency or innovation through better ways of working could generate major economic returns.

It just goes to show that people power is an asset that’s worth your investment. We have the technology and the willpower to make flexible working happen. At the very least, why not give it a go?

About Jo Disney

Jo Disney is a freelance writer and a long-term member of the Alliance Virtual Offices Marketing team, which offers mailing address and call answering services to small and growing businesses. Jo specializes in the flexible workspace industry and is a regular contributor to the business blogosphere. Jo is an advocate for greater flexibility at work and utilizes a variety of locations including a home office environment, believing that flexibility can bring about enormous benefits to working individuals, businesses and the global economy. Vive la révolution!