For some people, talking about distributed teams brings up bad memories of offshore outsourcing. When software development and other services first began to be taken on by third parties, overseas, things didn’t always run smoothly. It wasn’t unknown for queries to sit for hours, or days, in an inbox waiting a response. Delays like that held up the process for on-site members of staff.
Thankfully, those experiences are easy to avoid when working with a remote team. If you’re the manager of a team distributed across the country, or even the globe, then you do need to do things a little differently than you would if you shared an office with your staff.
You’ll be using the same management skills you would for any other project, it’s only the emphasis that changes when your team are working remotely.
When your team share a physical space, information about how everyone is doing flows automatically. You know when Doug is struggling with his code, because you hear the cursing from his cubicle. If Louise skips out early, she’s got that issue resolved and is taking a well earned break.
Communication between remote teams can be more challenging. Team members may be at work at different times of the day, limiting you to asynchronous conversation. Even when they’re not, there’s a natural tendency to only send a message when you have something work-related to say.
The same is true of video conference meetings; they tend to get straight down to business, and finish as soon as work has concluded. Maybe it’s a throwback to when speaking to people overseas was expensive. We still have a mental meter running when we talk.
There can be a tendency for remote staff to be, or to feel, ‘out of sight, out of mind’. Because they have more autonomy, virtual team members can feel isolated and struggle with a problem alone rather than ask for help.
Managing a remote team means being able to meet these challenges, and even make them work for you rather than against you. Here’s how:
This one’s a bit of a no-brainer, but your staff need to be really clear about what it is they’re supposed to do. Virtual team members work under their own initiative far more than they desk-bound colleagues. To avoid ‘lone wolf’ developers going off on tangents or doing things in their own, individual, way, clarity is essential.
We’re big advocates for the Agile Development Methodology when working remotely. We think that is provides the perfect framework to allow your staff to perform at their best, and keeps them on target. The daily stand-up is the perfect time to check that the team knows what’s happening, and what the next steps are.
If you have staff in different time zones, it can be tricky to find a time when everyone can get together for a meeting. Although there are solutions to manage an asynchronous stand-up for you, we’d still advocate for getting your people together.
You can do this by shifting your virtual team’s working hours just a little so there is an overlap. This might mean asking your remote team members to work outside the usual business hours a little; either to start earlier or finish later. Remote workers tend to be happy to be flexible about working hours, within reason.
We advocate going a step further and have the whole team work on the same hours. If you have remote developers in India, Europe or Africa, they should shift their clocks to your home timezone. It makes communication, which is so vital to remote teams, that much easier.
Of course, there are advantages to asynchronous working too. If you have time zones spread around the globe you can have work continuing for much of the 24 hours in a day. Shared tasks can be handed over from one team to another. That’s what makes that overlap of time zones so important.
The benefit of the increased number of remote teams is that there are more software solutions available to help distributed workers collaborate. What works for your team may not work for another, so it’s worth thoroughly exploring all the solutions available and trying some out. We’d suggest that you look at tools for:
Communication: Staying in touch is fundamental to remote teams. It has been said that communication is the oxygen for remote working. What’s important for task management is that you have multiple channels for communication, and that staff know which to use for what purpose. Know when to use video chat, screen sharing, voice or just leaving a message.
It’s also useful to have a ‘virtual water cooler’ where staff can just chat.
Collaboration: There’s some overlap here, but you also need tools that help your team to work together. If they don’t, you risk leaving people out of the loop. Virtual whiteboards such as Ziteboard or AWW App can help get information over in a new way. Task management sites like Azendoo keep a handle on what everyone is doing, and tools like Hackpad and Google Docs which allow collaboration on documents.
Sharing: You’ll need a way to pass files securely between your staff. Thankfully cloud based solutions make this simple. Google Drive and Dropbox both handle this sort of thing well. If you’re working with a development team then a tool like Github helps you keep your version control under...control.
Productivity: We’re going to be up front here, there are a lot of tools that claim to monitor the productivity of remote teams. Most of them don’t do any such thing. They might monitor how long someone is online, and ‘active’ but that doesn’t have a thing to do with productivity. It just encourages micro-managing, and that’s anathema to many who choose to work from home. We’d encourage you to measure your staff by what they deliver. Trust that you made the right decision when you hired them, and let them do their jobs. The proof that your trust is well-placed can come using tools like I Done This or in the daily stand-up.
If we haven’t stressed it enough already, communication is vital to the success of a remote team. That doesn’t only mean your instructions to them, but the way your team talk to each other. Are they capable of sending concise messages, asking for help and not taking offence if things go awry?
Encourage openness, and a culture of sharing. Invest time in pulling your team together, and in encouraging them to share successes and failures. And socialise. No, you can’t drag them all to the bar after work, but you can set up an online game to play, or have a google hangout office party. The more your team socialises together, the easier it will be for them to trust and talk to each other.
You’ll understand our bias when we say that the core of successfully managing a remote team comes from hiring the right people. While upwards of 80% of the population would like to work from home, not everyone is suited to it. Figuring out who you can trust to not only have the technical ability for a role, but the personal qualities that make a great virtual team member can be challenging.
If you’d like some help with that, we have outlined some key factors for hiring remote employees over on our blog. And if you have other questions? You might find the answers over there, too.
This article was written by Sharon Koifman founder of DistantJob, a high quality remote IT experts recruitment service. He believes every company, from the biggest enterprise to the newly-launched garage startup, should have access to world’s top talent.