Managing remote teams Featured

7:00pm EDT November 24, 2006

In today’s flat world, a company may have branches scattered all across the world. Or two or more separate companies may be working together on a joint project.

So how can a business owner or manager know that all of the people working for him are doing their jobs if he can’t see them in their office every day?

“Managing people who aren’t with you in the same physical location can create a number of problems and issues,” says Joel Adams, CEO and founder of Devon Consulting.

Smart Business spoke to Adams about geographically dispersed teams and how to manage them.

Why do some companies need a remote team?

Because the expertise just happens to be scattered and it doesn’t make much sense to move them. Say you need software to be developed by your team in India, plus a particular expert in Finland, and the best manager for the project is in the business unit sitting somewhere in the United States. Or your team of engineers in Palo Alto needs to work on a joint product development venture with engineers from another company, in Denver! Dispersed teams exist. Making them work well is the challenge.

How is managing remote workers different than other management?

When we see people everyday, there is an assumption that they’re working. When we don’t see people, we kind of assume the opposite. People working from home, are they really working? Well, probably they are, but managers don’t always assume that. When you see and talk to the same people every day, it builds trust. You get to know them as people as well as workers.

When the workers are remote — perhaps people you haven’t even met in person — there is a trust issue. The first thing you have to do with a remote team is address that trust issue. You have to build the same confidence that would be built around the water cooler or the coffee machine every day.

How do you build trust when the team isn’t in the same place?

The same way you do when people are co-located. It is just that when everyone is together, it tends to happen naturally. When people are in different places, it requires more conscious intent. Managers need to trust the workers and the workers need to trust the manager and each other.

You build trust by learning about the individual. When people are geographically dispersed, they have to work harder to learn about each other. In my office I know who the soccer moms are and which dad is camping with the Boy Scouts this week. But I have to work a lot harder to know that about remote coworkers.

What else is different about managing remote workers?

Communication has to be more thought out. Psychologists tell us that communication is at least one-half non-verbal. If I write you an e-mail, you’re getting only a small part of the communication. If I talk to you on the phone, we can pick up on each other’s voice inflection, or even silence. That’s much better. But the best communication is face-to-face because visual communication is part of it. Visual is especially important in understanding the listener’s reception of the communication.

Also, when people miss the local staff meeting, it is not a big problem. There is still plenty of informal communication that can make up for it. With remote teams, there isn’t as much opportunity for informal and ad hoc communications.

So what do managers and teams do?

Technology can help. Video conferences and instant messenger are good tools even with their drawbacks. But the important thing is that communication itself needs to be planned and periodically reviewed. For a remote team, there should be a formal communication plan, including who will communicate with whom, using what technology, at what time, and covering what topics. A daily meeting of all team members with weekly status updates to management is probably a minimum requirement.

The proper role of e-mail and when communication must be voice-to-voice should be thought out in advance. It must be specific, right down to who dials the phone and what time of day the report is due. The periodic review is critical because plans this specific can get out of date quickly.

What else should managers do?

Be ready to visit the team or bring everyone to a central location on a periodic basis. It can be expensive, but it is necessary. The virtual ‘pat on the back’ will never carry the warmth of the real thing.

JOEL ADAMS is CEO and founder of Devon Consulting. Reach him at (610) 964-5703 or jadams@devonconsulting.com.