Managing change in a remote team

Aug 30 2013 by Wayne Turmel Print This Article

As we all know, managing change can often be like trying to herd cats. So if it's is hard enough at the best of times, how is it possible to effectively manage a major change in an organization when people are spread across different locations or countries?

What can a manager do when everyone's cheese has been moved, and management by walking around is a physical impossibility?

Barbara Trautlein is the author of the book Change Intelligence: Use the Power of CQ to Lead Change that Sticks. She seemed like the right person to ask about this, so I fired her over three questions.

Change Management is notoriously difficult. How is managing a major change with a remote team different from the usual craziness?

Remote change agents face many unique challenges when managing change:

Estimates suggest that more than 80% of face-to-face communications come from non-verbal cues - facial expressions, gestures, tone of voice. Email communications remove all these, and phone meetings most of them. Even with Skype and web cameras, picking up on subtleties in reactions can be much more difficult than live interaction.

Remote teams also have significantly more limited opportunities to connect informally, which represent important means to get to know others beyond the basics of job titles and functional roles. The ability of a team to capitalize on each other's strengths and shore-up blind spots is critical in jointly leading a change effort. Knowing what motivates people and what fears they have are important input to the change process.

Of course, the most effective meetings have structured agenda, are facilitated with intentionality, and encourage accountability toward achieving mission-critical results. However, at times in our zeal to be optimally efficient, we can lose sight of genuine effectiveness, and in our focus on process, we can drop out the people side of change.

Carving out time for remote team members to establish rapport, interact informally, and build their team to be a true group working collaboratively toward a common goal as opposed to simply a collection of individuals is key to successfully leading change.

How can you monitor people's resistance or acceptance to change when you're not in the same location? How do you know they're "getting it"?

There are formal and informal ways to do this. You can do formal assessments of various kinds. Less structured means can include team members taking on assignments to conduct informal interviews, focus groups, and/or observations of change-related behaviors at their locations and report back to the team.

Information from multiple methods can be collected and analyzed to triangulate, resulting both in common issues and opportunities across locations as well as unique problems and best practices at specific facilities. Intentionally collecting and capitalizing on this information can be a powerful mechanism for knowledge management and continuous improvement for future initiatives.

What tools/technology and best practices should virtual teams take advantage of?

For virtual teams knowledge management systems such as SharePoint can be invaluable to foster team collaboration, knowledge management, document sharing, project planning, and tracking of accountabilities. Skype or Webex or Go-to-Webinar enable that all-important face time to encourage relationship-building at human level. And of course, there's email, which as we all know can be both empowering as well as potentially encumbering.

Being smart about when to pick up the phone instead of sending an email - and investing in periodic, in-person meetings - may take time and be an added expense, but will often pay off in terms of better quality decisions and smoother execution in the long run.

So, Barbara's point is that managing change is never easy, and remotely we miss some of the non-verbal cues that allow us to monitor reactions and adjust our course. It means we have to be better at getting the information we need, while ensuring our communication is properly understood and acted on. As leaders, we'll have to learn to make these adjustments.

more articles

About The Author

Wayne Turmel
Wayne Turmel

For almost 30 years, Wayne Turmel has been obsessed with how people communicate - or don't - at work. He has spent the last 20 years focused on remote and virtual work, recognized as one of the top 40 Remote Work Experts in the world. Besides writing for Management Issues, he has authored or co-authored 15 books, including The Long-Distance Leader and The Long-Distance Teammate. He is the lead Remote and Hybrid Work subject matter expert for the The Kevin Eikenberry Group. Originally from Canada, he now makes his home in Las Vegas, US.