Distributed teams, or remote teams as they are sometimes referred to, save money and time and enable companies to hire talent from remote locations. For these reasons having remote teams or remote employees has become a necessity for some companies and an increasingly interesting option for others.
But management of distributed teams differs from management of employees that work from the same location as managers. Geographical distance, above all, is a challenge that has to be overcome, and Human Resource managers are not the only ones who have to work on this.
Many guides and articles have been written about the topic of remote team management, „do’s and don’ts“ of this task and the best hacks and technology tools a manager should deploy to make the process more efficient.
Having constant communication and right processes in place is very important, and sticking to agreements is fundamental for efficient distributed team management. But as many HR professionals already know, the remote employees have at least one thing in common with other employees – they are also human like everyone else, with their needs, desires, and interests. And, like all other employees, their productivity will depend on the relationship they have with the management, wherever the management is.
In his book „The Like Switch“, Jack Schafer, a former FBI agent explains to us how to build lasting relationships, establish trust and keep stable communication. Although the advice primarily draws from his experience in the law enforcement (recruiting spies and getting suspects and witnesses to open up), the advice from the book applies to any relationship, romantic, professional, etc. Mr. Shafer defines the „Friendship formula“ as a four element formula that is the structure of successful relationships. The four elements (Proximity, Frequency, Intensity, Duration), if leveraged adequately ensure sustainable relationships. Let’s see how they could apply to remote team management.
The geographical distance is an obstacle to stable communication. As solving this costs a lot of money, managers should use other approaches and strategies to ensure that the geographical distance is not seen as an obstacle. In other words, they should feel that there is geographically close, even though they are at a different company location. If you are not physically present at their location, there are ways to make it seem like you are.
This is where technology comes in. The presence of management is observed by employees in several different ways. One is the availability of management for any questions or feedback the employees might need. To solve this, it is important to schedule time slots during which you will be available for discussion with employees, one on one through services like Skype, Slack or other conference solutions.
Another important way the employees observe the distance between them and the management is the ability of managers to monitor or measure their performance. If the employees are in the same physical location, sometimes this can be done with an occasional glance, sporadic meeting, or something more structured and organized. Much of the feedback comes spontaneously, and good managers can figure out how productive or motivated their employees are through just a few cues. In remote locations, managers do not have this amount of human contact and are no table to observe all the cues they observe at their company location. To empower management to do this, software companies are producing various employee monitoring and time tracking solutions, which often include automated reports on productivity, employee workload, productivity patterns and similar. And they do not have to be controversial if you implement them adequately.
You should make sure that you keep the communication constant, and frequent within boundaries of reasonable. Giving the remote employees autonomy is fine, especially if there are trustworthy managers at their location, but managers should have time slots during which they will talk to the remote employees, and these time slots should be planned, with meetings taking place as planned.
The exact number and frequency of these is something every manager should decide on bearing in mind the work and the working environment. It is also a good idea to complement online meetings with live meetings at their or your own location every once in a while. But frequency, combined with the right approach, establishes trust, and also the sense of presence necessary to simulate the proximity.
The meetings you do online with your remote staff do not need to be only formal. They should not be only something you do to stay on top of things or stay in touch. Do not let the geographical distance prevent you from going in depth during the discussion, or asking employees questions you would ask only those employees you see in the building on daily basis. Use the online meetings to learn about their everyday work, their opinions and feedback on various things. They might even appreciate it. But do not rush into these questions, and as always, make sure you listen to them with attention.
It is important to think strategically. If you are just starting out with the remote team management, do not go all in on your first meetings. Implementation of remote team management solutions is something that should be done at the speed that works for both the management and the remote team. If you are implementing monitoring or time tracking, make sure you explain your employees the purpose of this and educate them on how they work.
If you are having meetings, it is better to start slow, and then increase the frequency and duration of the meetings along with the intensity. You do not want these meetings to be a distraction to you or your employees, and you should also make sure they are done at times that do not affect the company productivity.
If you do all of the above, and more, you will still want to meet your employees in person every now and then. On the top of that, you might want to consider having different remote teams meet each other in person once in a while, depending on the type of business that you do. But it is important to have all three things in the perspective: the live meetings, the technology, and the friendship formula. The rest is management.