Article:

Overcoming the big five challenges of managing remote teams

Written by Jo Owen Tuesday 03 November 2020
Remote work is only an obstacle when seeing it the wrong way. Here’s a few ways you can make it work for you, not against you
Person in mask working in an outdoor cafe

Hybrid working and working from home is not a temporary shift: it is a paradigm shift. Around the world staff say that they want to spend part of the week at home and part of the week at the office. Even in Japan, where workplace loyalty is high and homes are small, employees want to work from home more.

Most managers have no training or experience of running remote teams, except those working on global teams. My research for Global Teams, published by the FT, has proven to be a useful guide to the challenges and opportunities of hybrid working.

The big message here is that everything is harder on a remote team…which is wonderful news for managers. If you can run a remote team, you can run any team.

Running a remote team means you have to be much more purposeful and deliberate about your management practice. Informal and ad-hoc practices which work so well face to face in the office do not work remotely. Working from home is the chance for all managers to raise their game.

Here is what you can do about the five main challenges of hybrid and remote working:

Motivation

In the office you know who is thriving and who is struggling. When working from home you have no idea how people are coping, and if you find a way of motivating people by email, you will make a fortune. It is a fortune which is unlikely to be made. Although you cannot tell people to be motivated, you can create the four conditions in which they can sustain their intrinsic motivation:

Supportive relationships - We are all social animals and crave support.  As a team manager, you are the most important professional relationship your team has. That means you have to be less of a 20th-century boss and more of a 21st-century coach who supports and enables each team member to achieve their best.
Purpose - It is easier to perform and persist when in pursuit of a meaningful goal: increasing EPS for is not a meaningful personal goal for anyone except the CEO. Show how the work of the team has value, makes a difference and can help each team member enhance their skills and career. Make purpose personal.
Autonomy - Professionals hate being micromanaged, and remote working is the perfect opportunity to step back. Show you trust your team: delegate more meaningful tasks, manage them less and let professionals do what they naturally do: overachieve.
Mastery - It is hard to be motivated when you lack the skills to complete the task. Working from home is the perfect opportunity to let your team invest in their most important asset: themselves. Set them tasks which will grow their skills; let them have time to do that online course alone.

Communication

Hybrid working can lead to death by zoom; everyone spends so much time meeting and co-ordinating that no actual work is done. You need clear rhythms and routines for communication. It does not matter what your system is, as long as you have one which the whole team agrees to and follows. A simple routine is the daily YTH meeting. At the start of every day each team member has ninety seconds to report three items:

Y: this is what I did yesterday
T: this is what I will do today
H: this is where I need help.
Quickly, everyone knows what everyone else is doing and they all leave with clear goals; you have a simple way of tracking accountability and you know where help is needed.

Decision making and goal setting

This happens informally and often effectively in the office. People know what is going on, they are involved which builds ownership and commitment; any misunderstandings are easy to spot and quick to fix. None of this happens when working remotely. You have to be much more purposeful and deliberate in your management practice. Do not try to sell a decision after you have made it. The best way to sell a decision is to involve your team as you make the decision. Your team will then own the decision and understand it: not just the what, but the why and how as well. This takes effort, which pays dividends later. Slow decision making leads to clear and fast action, which is better than a quick but contested decision.

Workload and performance management

Professional work is ambiguous which makes it easy for slackers to slack and overachievers to burn out. In the office you can see who is in which camp, but working from home makes that invisible. Over-achievers will double down as they work twice as hard to prove their worth – remote working ruins work-life balance.

There is no magic bullet except communication. Ask how team members are coping and you will usually get an answer you can interpret accurately. Replace informal ad-hoc office management with much more purposeful and deliberate enquiry.

Team building

Existing teams have established relationships which make it easy to keep work remotely. New teams, and new team members lack the trust, relationships and skills of established teams. They will not know the informal rules by which every team works.

Do these things to build your remote teams:

Hold a methods workshop and explicitly agree the team rules: the rhythms and routines of communication, how decisions will work, how work will be assigned and how performance will be managed. Then repeat the workshop regularly in the light of experience.

Help new team members, who may need to work in the office to gain the mentoring and support they need, to build relationships and acquire the skills they need. Remote working is not for everyone, especially younger team members who may be working from the end of a bed in a noisy flat share.

Hybrid working is raising the bar for managers. It is forcing us to be more deliberate and purposeful in our management practice. That is good news for managers and their teams alike.

We also wrote about the five most common types of conflict in a distributed team, and how you can navigate it.

Jo Owen is the author of The Leadership Skills Handbook (published by Kogan Page), a CMI category award winner.

Don’t miss out - get notified of new content

Sign-up to become a Friend of CMI to recieve our free newsletter for a regular round-up of our latest insight and guidance.

CMI members always see more. For the widest selection of content, including CPD tools and multimedia resources, check out how to get involved with CMI membership.