As many managers are now discovering, leading a remote team can sometimes feel like an entirely different kettle of fish to leading a physically co-located one. But actually it’s the same fish, just a different kettle.
If we think about what teams need to do (and leaders need to help facilitate) - share information, collaborate, offer assistance to each other - the job is the same whether our desks are adjacent or whether we're working at home or even thousands of miles apart.
Working remotely does pose the challenges in unexpected ways, however. Adjusting to our work and communication being mediated by technology instead of relying on our age-old instincts means we have to re-think how we do certain things.
Here are five ways in which remote teams struggle - and five things that newly remote managers need to think hard about:
1. The team lacks a compelling vision and purpose. Is everyone pulling in the same direction for the same reasons. While we often think we do a good job of this, working remotely makes it very easy for people to become very focused on their own tasks and work at the expense of the overall team.
2. Team members don’t hold each other accountable for their work and deliverables. Because we don’t see each other all the time, and don’t have a lot of accidental or incidental communication with people, we don’t know what they ‘re up to until a project is finished and a deliverable is made…or not.
Remote workers often develop a “tunnel vision” where they are worried about their work, and on the relationship with the manager. If you are unwilling to confront a co-worker, or ask for assistance, working virtually becomes a very convenient excuse. Working remotely actually requires more proactive communication, not less.
3. The team doesn’t have shared leadership. In the project management world especially, we are often tasked with leading teams or groups where you have no authority over the individual members (oh, but you get all of the responsibility/blame). When someone has a “real boss” as well as their responsibilities to the team, the potential is ripe for conflicting priorities, mis-spent time and confusion.
4. Team processes aren’t effective, or at least not adhered to. Working virtually and remote from each other requires clear, explicit processes. How do you communicate? What technology will you use in which ways to help share knowledge, collaborate and allocate resources? Often, when people are unclear as to chain of authority, roles and scope of influence, the default choice is not to communicate or take action.
5. Individual relationships with the manager. One thing doesn’t change, and it doesn’t matter if you are remote or not. The number one factor in whether someone stays or goes, or functions at a high level or just putters along, is their individual relationship with the manager. Working remotely doesn’t lessen the importance of good communication, effective coaching and influence…. But it sure makes it different than what we’re used to.
There are many organizations with highly functional, productive and motivated remote teams, just as many people who share an office are mired in despair and unproductive behaviors. These five things, though, raise questions organizations managers and individual workers need to think about if they’re going to do the best work they can.