In the past seven years, I’ve been part of building up an international business division where teams were scattered and collaborating across multiple geographical locations. I still remember my thoughts going into the role. What would it feel like having no colleagues around me and how would we collaborate effectively? I was challenged to build and manage a team of sales hunters cross 8 geographic locations, and remotely managing a team of account managers based in Dublin. Seven great years of challenges, fun, and collaboration that helped me build knowledge and best practices for managing a remote workforce.
If you want to manage a geographically dispersed team, start by understanding what it’s like to be managed remote
I have personally felt downsides of working remotely. Like not being able to hear half of the conversation when dialing into Skype with everyone else being in the actual meeting room. Or realizing that you don’t get the same information your onsite colleagues do because your manager feels more comfortable sharing face to face. And maybe it’s just hard to get to your manager because she is always super busy and marked as “Do not disturb” in your instant messaging system. Often those who work in the same office know how to get to her when she runs down the aisle. Having empathy and seeking to understand what it’s like to be managed remotely is key and allows you to adjust behavior, structure processes and create an inclusive environment.
Consciously decide that you are a manager of a geographically dispersed team
If you want to create a strong team and foster collaboration, you must consciously decide that this is a geographically dispersed team – period! Trying to get those remote workers integrated into your onsite rhythm just won’t work. Make sure meetings are set up in a way that is inclusive for all, make sure to plan events around dates where people can travel, and bring everyone together for bonding and celebrations. Design meetings, team communications, and processes for remote resources and ensure that you are setting clear expectations so neither you nor they need worrying about performance. Your whole approach to leading has to be centered around managing remotely. The first step to being a great manager of a geographically dispersed team is to first acknowledge that this is what you are.
Understand personality and cultural differences, adjust your approach, ask clarifying questions
Danish is my first language, and although I feel super comfortable communicating in English there are sometimes phrases that I would directly translate from Danish. I had this great remote manager who sometimes would stop and ask me to clarify during our meetings. “Hey, Jesper, can you try to rephrase that?”, and then as I did, he would coach me on rephrasing to ensure people who are native English speakers, would get the meaning. I admire leaders who are great at asking clarifying questions before concluding, it is such an important aspect to managing. Equally, you must accept that there are so many business nuances between markets. Selling in France is not the same as selling in Italy or Spain. As a manager, I try to be humble and always seek market input when suggesting an approach. After all, I hired them to be local experts.
Availability and communication is key
Some periods are just more busy than others, and we all experience those days stuck in back-to-back meetings. Those in the same office will see you looking stressed and worked out but might be lucky to grab 5 minutes for that important question. But remote resources often struggle getting to you. Chances are you’ll disappear and seem distant if you haven’t consciously planned around communicating and setting the stage for how to get to you. The best remote managers I know are great at communicating during busy times. It doesn’t take much to send out a quick team update, warning about a busy period coming up. Communicate upfront during busy times, consider setting up specific timeslots for quick daily virtual gatherings, make sure people don’t sit around waiting for you to answer that urgent mail, let them know how to get to you for urgent stuff.
Give employees access to information simultaneously
I once had a manager who was an amazing business professional and valued partner for me. But often I would hear more about business issues or future organizational changes through people based in his office than I would directly from him. Turned out he was great at sharing over a chat outside the office, less so over a Skype call. I get it, it’s just easier to share stuff like that face to face. But feeling left out, and not updated timely is one of the big barriers for remote workers. To become an excellent manager of remote employees, you must make a conscious decision to share evenly between remote and local employees. Inclusion is key, also when you are managing remotely.
Community, belonging and strong team collaboration
Part of every high-performance team, right? But turns out this can work super well in a geographically dispersed team as well; you just need to adjust your approach slightly. Having two people in different locations working together on projects, promote collaboration and sharing cross markets, leverage tools that can help create a virtual community, and make sure to regularly reach out to those in remote locations. There are tons of great tech that can foster collaboration. But how do you mirror that informal conversation that would happen in an office? I have observed many well-functioning remote teams who consciously chose a separate platform for sharing those informal stories that you would hear in an office. We would often use WhatsApp for that type of communication, sharing pictures or funny stories from life events. The drivers are the same no matter if your team is local or remote. It’s just how you adjust your approach, and leverage technology to bring everyone closer together.
Make sure meetings work for everyone
Have you tried being in one of those meetings where you are one of a few who are dialed in? Most often it’s a pain because technology doesn’t work properly. Maybe you were dialed in after the initial communication started, maybe the microphones don’t pick up questions the audience is asking or maybe it’s just hard to get your points across because everyone in the room is all over the conversation. Technology must work flawlessly if you want to make meetings an inclusive experience for all and keep people engaged. If you are not ready to invest in a good conferencing device, I’d recommend having everyone dialing into the meeting. Using the microphone and speaker on your laptop just won’t make it. And If you have people dialing into one of those all-hands where a larger audience is in the same room, there is a couple of additional things you can do to make that a better remote experience; invest in good conferencing equipment, use video, have someone in the room monitor the chat and speak up if there are questions and comments from the remote audience, make sure speakers are wearing microphones and that all audience questions can be heard in the conference call as well.
Prioritize bringing people together
Technology can do so much, but there is nothing like the human touch. This is not rocket science, but often organizations fail to prioritize bringing people together enough. In my teams, I always tried doing a quarterly offsite. If you have a couple of people in remote locations, make sure they have at least one full day in the office for meetings with various colleagues, and then a secondary day for a team meeting and social activity. I’m not the big party planner, but luckily, I’ve always been good at delegating to the talented team members who were happy to pick up.
Hire the right people for the job
There are so many other aspects to building and managing a remote team, one of the most important is hiring people who are open, inclusive, can work independently and have a high degree of self-sufficiency. Look for communication skills, someone who is goal-driven and made of the right material to work remotely yet still would fit well in your team. I consciously decided not to dive deeper into this here. Isn’t hiring the right people for the job always your role as a manager? I love hiring and finding the right people for the job, but even more interesting is what I can do differently to lead a great team, reach our team targets, drive collaboration and create belonging.