Managing from Afar: The Secrets of Running Remote Teams

Ironically, managing remote workers today takes dedicated, persistent attention and a hand-offs approach.
Here is the first tip offered by top project managers when it comes to managing distant teams with members dispersed across the globe: the old management style just will not get results in this environment. Command and control built around visually monitoring team members is just so 20th century.

The second tip: successful managing today involves using the right mix of high tech and soft personal touches, to keep a dispersed work group clicking and in synch. Understand this, too: more and more project management now involves running dispersed teams and, in some ways, the challenges are the same if the workers are operating out of their homes in Marin County or out of cubicles in Chennai, India. Cultural differences may create new wrinkles (more on that in a second), but all remote workers require a deft touch to keep them on board and pulling with the project plan.

The good news is experience with running remote teams has multiplied and that means there are plenty of best practices to share. Here are five of the most important:

Use the right technology. “Just in the last two years we have seen much better technology for managing remote workers,” said Lawrence Imeish, principal consultant for Dimension Data North America.

Factor in low-cost VOIP telephony (possibly free when using Skype and similar services), IM, inexpensive video conference tools, and email and, suddenly, round-the-clock synchronous and asynchronous connection to remote teams is both easy to do and within any budget, no matter where team members are located.

Don’t think that technology is what this is about, however. It is not. “Use the technology to build relationships. That is what matters in a project team,” said Imeish.

Put in plenty of face time. Teams may be dispersed and distant but that does not mean they should never put names to faces. Kevin Moos, chief operating officer of technology consulting firm Primitive Logic, said that the secret sauce that keeps many remote teams working smoothly at his company is a commitment to building in as much face time as possible.

Don’t think online meetings can fully replace in-person meetings, “They do not,” said Colin Smith, director of communications for WebEx/Cisco, which, of course, is a leader in Web meeting tools. Smith naturally is a huge proponent of online tools (“We couldn’t run our business without using our own tools.”) but there always come that moment when face time is magical.

When people see each other and connect faces to IM handles and VOIP callers things just go better. Don’t have the budget to bring everybody together? The shoe then goes on the project manager’s foot. Visit as many remote workers as possible. Quarterly trips to work groups in China or India are the norm for many U.S.-based team leaders. Experts insist this face-time pays rich dividends in worker commitment and productivity.

Stay alert to cultural issues. A worker in Milwaukee is not exactly the same as one in Mumbai and that reality should never be overlooked. “Culture plays a big role in managing remote project teams,” said David Gammel of High Context Consulting in Salisbury, MD.

Just one “for instance”: workers in India are reluctant to admit that failure to meet a looming deadline is likely and consequently they often will offer assurances, even when it has become evident that the deadline won’t be met. This is not a right/wrong issue so much as a case where project managers need to quickly become tuned into any cultural issues that are likely to influence what remote workers report and what it means.

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