THE IDG BLOG    

How to Manage Remote Teams Effectively

By

Iain Robertson
Head of Consultancy, IDG

As more and more of us will be working remotely over the coming weeks, I thought it would be valuable to identify of a few key lessons that help remote or virtual teams be as effective as possible. These are particularly important where the members of the virtual team are not used to working remotely – which will be many people.

All the research (eg Chatfield et al, 2014) tells us that the challenges of traditional, face-to-face teams also exist with virtual teams – along with a few extras thrown in. In summary, however, our experience is that making virtual teams work well requires specific focus on the following four things:

Effective communication

Virtual teams need more explicit communication than traditional teams – partly because traditional teams have the benefit of all the non-verbal information available, and partly because all the challenges of communication are magnified by distance, time and the slower pace of information transfer. To that end leaders should not be afraid to state the obvious – because that way everybody knows the same obvious. Followers should also be willing to ask “stupid” questions since in a virtual team the more information the better – particularly in a virtual team that is new and still finding its way.

Trust

We all need to trust people to be able to work with them effectively – and in virtual teams, trust is a key determinant of whether members are more likely to compete with each other or collaborate. Early in the life of a team, leaders should be looking to establish “quick trust” which is dependent on the following:

  • Competence (showing team members how good their colleagues are at their jobs),
  • Reciprocity (trusting your team as you expect them to trust you),
  • Integrity (by keeping your promises – and insisting others keep theirs), and
  • Openness (see knowledge sharing below).
Interpersonal skills

In addition to the broader need for communication noted above, leaders of virtual teams need to adjust their leadership style to account for the remote (and often isolated) location of team members. In particular, it is clear that whilst the performance of virtual teams depends even more than normal on ongoing feedback from the leader, they also depend on that leader adopting a collaborative and co-ordinating approach rather than a controlling one. To that end both leaders and followers should communicate little and often and aim for a peer-to-peer relationship where possible.

Knowledge sharing

Maintaining mutual knowledge is a core challenge for virtual teams. Even where information is hosted centrally via a shared IT resource, it is easy for virtual teams to lose important contextual cues or to misinterpret the importance of different pieces of information. Even something as simple as silence can be challenging – does no response mean “yes”, “no”, or “I haven’t even seen this yet”? To deal with these challenges, teams need to establish clear ground rules and ways of working – using the collaborative approach referenced above – so that both leaders and followers can be sure that everyone is on the same page.

It is clear that each of these four elements depends on the and influences the others. Leadership and followership actions do not exist in a vacuum – even though it may feel like that to colleagues working remotely for the first time. Therefore the key advice is: communicate clearly, communicate often, and trust your team to come through this.

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