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Managing Remote Teams
 
Published Wednesday, August 27, 2014
by Matthew J. Mowry

As companies grow, workforces are becoming more fragmented with more people working from home. The U.S. Census reported that 13.4 million people, or 9.4 percent of the U.S. workforce, worked at home at least once a week in 2013. And technology makes it easier for workers spread across the country to stay connected. However, managing a remote workforce can be tricky and test even the most competent manager.

Better fine-tune those management skills, though, because experts say the number of remote workers will likely increase. “Our talent pool is shrinking. The high quality talent you want is going to be harder and harder to come by,” says David Lidell, president and CEO of SKYE Business Solutions in Merrimack. That means employers will need to offer the flexible schedules and work options employees want—and what many want is to work from home.

The Right Remote Team

Experts say making remote teams effective starts with knowing your staff. “Not everyone is capable of working effectively in a remote office,” says Jim Kimberly, founder and president of Sapphire Consulting in Amherst. It is particularly critical to properly assess new hires, he says, as they can struggle with learning a new job and culture while also coping with the demands of working remotely.

“Look for effective communication skills,” Kimberly says, particularly writing skills, as people’s ability to clearly communicate by email can be vastly different from their verbal communication. Kimberly suggests giving them a small project that tests that ability to communicate and handle conflict or stress. “If someone has had problems dealing with other members of the team, working remotely will only exacerbate that as they won’t be communicating as directly,” Kimberly says.

Lidell says managers need to carefully examine each person’s style when it comes to communication, organization and work habits before putting them in a remote position. “Think about the characteristics that make a person successful in a remote office—being a self starter and independent. You need someone who is organized and outcome focused, who thinks about the end result rather than just the activity,” Lidell says. If a person requires a lot of social interaction at work, a remote position will not work well for them.

Lidell also cautions there are other management issues that come into play even with the right staff. “If you select the right person to run a remote office or to work remotely, it’s not a question of whether they will work hard enough. The problem may be working too much. The biggest consideration is keeping them focused and making sure they don’t burn themselves out,” he says.

Communicate More

When it comes to remote workers, experts say you cannot communicate enough. Use video as much as possible, Kimberly says. “You can read body language and how they are behaving in a meeting. It’s key to pay attention to body language during these meetings.”

And when possible, schedule in-person meetings to get actual face time. “You have to go out and visit occasionally and do it early in the team building process,” Kimberly notes, adding he works with one executive with teams in California and Louisiana. The executive splits his time between both places. “The manager is seen as being part of both locations, which reduces an ‘us versus them’ [scenario] or someone being viewed as a favored team,” he says.

However, Lidell warns managers against surprise visits. “Don’t pop in. People don’t like that,” he says, explaining it’s important that remote workers feel respected.

It’s also important everyone feels heard. “The home office tends to be larger than that of a remote team, so they become secondary citizens,” Kimberly says.

Tools and Strategies

There are a variety of tools and strategies managers can use to more effectively manage a remote worker or team. Below are a few:

Start with a team charter, Kimberly suggests. It should include goals and objectives, time frames, roles, and team norms. It should also outline expected behaviors of team members for meeting attendance, response time to voicemail and emails and notification of absence.

Have an electronic shared file system that the team can access, says Kimberly, so teams can communicate and be held accountable.

Rotate who runs meetings and makes presentations to include remote workers.

 Make sure everyone has a chance to speak at meetings, including remote workers who call or teleconference in.

Having employees work remotely requires a lot of planning, but without trust it won’t work. “You have to be well aware of your style and comfort level. If you’re someone who likes to be in control, managing a remote office or team can be well outside your comfort zone. You have to let go and trust,” Lidell says. “Trust begets trust. You have to let go and it’s very uncomfortable.”


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