Managing a team is tricky. Managing a remote team – that is, when you’re not all in one place, adds an extra layer of complexity. This is especially true if you are spread out amongst different time zones as well as locations (I am currently managing a remote team located in London, though I’m located in our San Francisco office). Here are some top tips for successful remote team management.
1. First, Hire the Right People for the Situation
It sounds obvious, but for managing a remote team to work well, the individual contributors need to be carefully selected. While it’s true you need to hire smartly to get the foundations of any team right, for teams that don’t have constant face-to-face interaction, your criteria for selection should be more heavily weighted toward ability to communicate, both over the phone and through written communication such as email and chat.
Additionally, for dispersed teams you may need to look more toward hiring autonomous self-starters who have the initiative and judgment to be able to assess when things need approval or when they need executing immediately. This of course, this needs to be supported by a clearly communicated governance process.
What if you’re managing an existing remote team? Spend some time assessing your team’s strengths and weaknesses, especially in regards to communication styles, how they respond to constructive criticism, and whether they are self-starters. In doing this you will gain a better understanding of how to make the whole team work more productively, and how much time you’ll need to allocate to managing each person.
2. Get the Right Tools for the Job
Once you’ve got the people in place, you need tools to support collaboration and knowledge transfer. We suggest a combination of the following:
- Email (it sounds basic, but sometimes you can’t beat it)
- Conferencing and online meeting services (e.g. LoopUp, Face Time, Google Hangouts)
- Instant messaging tools (e.g. Yahoo IM, Trillian, Google chat)
- Project management tools (e.g. Basecamp, Trello, Smartsheet, Microsoft Project)
- File sharing tools (e.g. Dropbox, Box, Google Drive)
- Shared calendars (e.g. Outlook Exchange, Google Calendar)
Especially consider services and tools that are cloud-based, so your team can access them from anywhere. That way, no matter where you and your team are working from, you will be able to still keep things on track.
3. Schedule Time for Regular Communication
The tools you choose should all support regular check-ins, whether they are with the whole group or with individual team members on a one-on-one basis. The following help everyone to stay on the same page and stay accountable to the greater group:
- Weekly team meetings
Ideally at the start of the week, the team discusses – and commits to – the weekly goals and priorities.
- Bi-weekly check-in calls
15 minutes together as a group should be enough time for individuals to give quick status updates and raise any blockers. This usually results in a set of action points which are then discussed and actioned on outside of the call.
- Collaborating on shared project documents
A shared, editable project document can be very helpful in providing real-time visibility of what everyone’s working on, and communicating with each other through comments and edits.
- Monthly one-on-ones
Spending time with individual team members outside of the group setting is essential to check in on what’s working and what isn’t, as well as addressing individual goals and development points.
4. Set the Tone
All of the above can only work with the right attitude in place and a deliberate communication style. You’re aiming for the team to feel like they’re all in it together, working towards a common goal, despite the distance. Team managers should consider using the following attributes and communication tactics, and team members should be expected to follow suit:
- Be willing to give and receive constructive feedback
Have an open, adaptable attitude and a willingness to learn from each other, make suggestions on what is and isn’t working and look outside the organization for examples of other companies who are successfully managing similar situations.
- Be direct
When you’re indirect, you miss out on the opportunity of reducing ambiguity. As such, pick up the phone or set up another conference call when it’s really vital that someone understand your feedback immediately. You’ll also give the opportunity for a discussion that may lead to a better outcome than the one that would have resulted otherwise.
- Anticipate questions
When composing emails, think about the questions your email may raise, and try to answer them in advance. This cuts down on confusion, and reduces the time it takes for things to get done – especially when time zones mean that any unanswered questions may add another day to iterations.
- Be flexible
From time to time, you may need to adopt different hours to accommodate for other time zones, both from a practical point of view and as a show of good will. Be aware too, of what you’re requiring from others and be sensitive of their time.
- Be consistent
When you set up processes, such as a daily check-in into a project document, be sure you follow through and consistently check in if you expect others to do the same.
- Don’t overthink it
Sometimes a quick phone call or instant message can achieve just as much as a well thought out, meticulously composed email, while spending much less time.
Finally, sometimes nothing beats time spent together in person, so be sure to take advantage of any opportunities you have to get your team all in one place. I hope these tactics help you with managing remote team members, and I’d love to hear about strategies you’ve successfully employed.