5 Ways to Effectively Manage Remote Teams & Avoid Project Crisis

The following is a guest contribution from Ionia Sima. Ionia is an architecture student, gamer, writer, and CMO of Digital Web Properties. She has a great interest in big data, SEO, SMM, and video animation. You can follow her on Twitter for more random musings.


How do you manage people you can’t see?

Hiring remote employees has become an option that numerous industries have started doing, but that comes with a problem…

Due to the recent popularity of the concept, the majority do not properly understand how to lead and manage remote teams.

It takes a different set of skills, a new twist to even the most charismatic of leaders, and a comprehensive understanding of human nature. It’s part leadership, part marketing, part psychology, part technology.

All of these elements need to combine in harmony in order to coordinate a team of individuals, all of which have their own lifestyle, temperament, and work ethic.

It’s your responsibility to learn how to balance them to lead remote teams and avoid crisis situations where communication is the solution.

The challenge is more intense when there is a lack of face-to-face interaction. It chips away at a leader’s ability to read their staff members based on expression, the tone of voice, and body language. However, given the near inevitable surging popularity of remote working, it can be accomplished.

They’re regular employees: treat them like that

Mark Mortensen, the Associate Professor of Organizational Behavior at INSEAD stated that “You shouldn’t think about [remote employees] in a fundamentally different way.”

In essence, they are still your employees and should receive the same treatment. Many companies make the mistake of seeing remote workers as “mythical beasts” and often modify their approach. That causes a separation. Furthermore, the physical distance can create an “us versus them” mentality between your remote team and the one working from the office. That’s why it becomes crucial to watch out for potential fractures and an unwanted sense of competition.

More importantly is to find a way to fix it, and that is done through transparency. Arvind Sarin, who is the CEO of Copper Mobile, noted the resentment that can spark between the two teams. Office workers could find themselves saying “I’ve been working here since seven in the morning, and those from home don’t roll out of bed until 12 PM.” It’s subtle, but it’s there.

There are definite advantages that some will have:

  • They can work in a quiet environment
  • Stay close to their family to help around the house
  • Assure they can get a good night’s sleep
  • Make themselves comfortable, even working from their own bed.

These are obvious perks, and your office workers won’t ignore them.

To bring the team together, Sarin decided to be more open about the company’s targets and goals. Everyone knew what they were doing, so all would know what to expect. That means that he created a common purpose by offering more details. He explained what they were doing, how much they billed, what was their target, how long they expected a client to last, and what the workflow looked like.

It successfully worked as motivation for the employees to work together. They had a destination they needed to reach, and all had to get on deck for the journey. This transparency can unite your team. Bringing remote members on board and in line with everything can help tremendously.

Use multiple communication channels

A Forrester Research predicts that 43 percent of the U.S. workforce will telecommute in 2016, which means 63 million people regularly spending time on the road. That’s up from 34 million in 2009.

The stats imply a desire to limit the number of employees who will be forced to waste time spent in traffic and cut down on productivity. Building remote teams of dedicated workers who are willing to do their jobs from home is a potential fix to a seemingly inevitable problem. The most obvious obstacle that distance creates is well-known and universal: communication.

In order to effectively lead remote employees, you need to use every single communication channel at your disposal.

For example:

  • Slack
  • Google Hangouts
  • Email
  • Comments on Google Docs or Quip
  • Trello

Most importantly, there’s an urgent need for adaptation that numerous employers lack. Emails were the primary means in the past, but they are slowly losing potency and power. Instant chats are now considered the closest simulation of real-life conversation due to their speed and availability. However, a different type of channel will likely take the crown in the future. Video communication and recordings will become the norm and the essential tool for any leader of remote teams.

We have moved past the times where jotting down notes in meetings was the best way of memorizing the little details discussed. Recording a video conference, on the other hand, can have a much bigger impact. Your remote employees will not be required to write down major points and remember everything you said. Instead, they will be able to relive the entire conversation with ease. It will become their best reference and your most impacting way of strengthening employer-employee relationships.

Videos add a human touch to every interaction. It’s an excellent tool for remote workers and a good way for a leader to supervise their responsiveness.

A simple call or chat may not suffice in keeping their attention, as they may zone out or even become distracted. Video chats, on the other hand, ensure their focus, decreases the chances of misunderstandings, and enhances the experience.

Trust, but verify

Numerous programs out there can successfully monitor the activity of your remote team. However, they lack the necessary human factor that triggers a genuine sense of responsibility. One piece of software observing their work will never equal the watchful eye of a leader. Unfortunately, with a lack of proper supervision, the first temptation of any remote worker will be to slack off. They are commonly more relaxed and comfortable, and they should be. In fact, remote workers are happier than other employees by a margin of 0.68 on a scale from 1 to 10.

It should be the desired result of an efficient leader, but the manner to achieve it is equally crucial. It’s vital to create a balance between imposing your goals and trusting your team to accomplish them. There’s a fine line that should be threaded carefully. Happiness and productivity should not become conflicting ideals. To reach the targeted middle, you need to set clear goals. Keep these points in mind:

  • Availability
  • Productivity
  • Responsibility

An effective way to become a successful leader of a remote team is to make sure they understand when you are available, what it means to be productive, and how to remain responsible. That implies the need to make your expectations clear. Your team should understand your aim. Little phrases such as “reach for the stars,” “knock it out of the park,” or “let’s do better, faster” are not what they need. Explain what you mean in a clear and concise manner, devise a plan to reach it, and regularly check on their progress.

Define weekly, monthly, and yearly performance goals. They are not in the office next to you, and thus cannot track the progress of your business. It’s your responsibility as a leader to check, recheck, and constantly make sure they are on track while offering the right productivity tools and motivation.

Make chemistry a high priority

Many employers make the mistake of encouraging teamwork among their workers without first analyzing the chemistry within that group. It’s a particularly impacting error for remote teams. The distance is already there, and the communication is somewhat limited. It’s difficult for them to bond and get to know each other, which will be especially paramount in crisis situations. When things get rough and people start panicking about deadlines, instinct kicks in, and they tend to drift in different directions. Each has their own purpose and are often desperate to reach their target, regardless of other team members.

A good relationship between employees is the only thing that can save the situation and maintain teamwork. However, that’s especially challenging for remote workers who rarely or never meet. That is why it’s absolutely vital for a leader to assure there is chemistry among them. A few “rotten apples” can destroy a team and dramatically damage its performance. And the ugly truth of this issue is that recruiters and leaders or managers only notice it too late. It can take a while to understand where the problem is and what isn’t working. If it were easy, every company would be profitable, successful, and we would all be smiling. It’s, unfortunately, not the case.

To assure chemistry, it’s important to assess and reassess a team’s “soft skills.” It’s not just about each individual’s competence, but the group as a whole. Around 77 percent of HR recruits believe that “soft skills” are just as important as “hard skills”, so it goes far beyond technical capabilities. It’s about compassion, intuition, ambition, drive, work ethic, and many other traits that can define the success of a project or a team. A symbiotic gathering of people with the same “soft skills” will better manage themselves in crisis situations.

Even more, a remote team in perfect sync and with excellent chemistry will solve issues faster than a group of people with similar “hard skills” and knowledge.

Be the leader, not the boss

There is a significant difference between being a leader and being a boss. The former requires a set of skills that center around helping and teaching by example instead of ordering. A successful leader will inspire, encourage, correct when needed, show a spirit of collaboration and teamwork, and they can communicate an engaging vision. All these traits remain the same with remote teams. However, the practice becomes trickier because employees working from other locations tend to suffer from a disconnection and detachment from their job.

The availability and “My door is always open” mentality do not apply the same way. That’s why it’s important to provide hope and vision instead of hard stats and instructions. Remote employees will not be able to walk down the hall and ask questions. So, if they understand your vision and goals, they can become more independent, which will aid in avoiding crisis situations. One useful method would be to schedule monthly meetings or calls. If they know they will get your undivided attention at one point during the month, it will cut down the time spent on minor issues during regular work hours.

However, it’s likely calls will become too messy if the team is big. Intuit predicts that 40 percent of U.S. workforce will consist of freelancers, contractors, and temporary workers by 2020. That suggests an increase of employees that will be working remotely or from home. Leaders will have to maintain that connection but among more people. CEO of Inkwell, Manon DeFelice, manages a team that works from all around the country, ranging from New York to Washington DC to Minneapolis. In order to create a connection between her staff, she seizes every opportunity for a group face-to-face.

Now, she advises people to do the same. Instead of asking for the help of local employees, DeFelice invited her entire team for a pitch meeting. Afterward, she treats all of them to a celebratory dinner. This can do wonders with lifting team spirit and morale. You can use it as an opportunity to offer praise and voice out your appreciation as a leader, in front of everyone, so they know that their hard work is noted. As DeFelice explained, they are not spending funds on expensive office spaces, so that money is spent taking her team out to dinner.

It seems inevitable that companies will have to learn to adapt to this relatively new type of employees. In fact, 68 percent of businesses believe that flexible work environments can help increase revenue, which means that a majority of them might start seriously considering remote workers. They will need a good leader to unite them, so you should understand the subtle details that can make it effective. One hidden quality that you should practice in the meantime? Writing. Learning to write will become essential. Your abilities to communicate, smile, and be social will switch to typing out instructions and suggestions.

It’s important to improve yourself in order to lead a team of remote workers. Never forget: they already have the perfect work environment, the one they’ve chosen themselves. It’s up to you to guide, inspire, and lead them toward greater potential and total productivity.

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