5 ways to lead a team dispersed across remote locations

Many workplaces today have dispersed teams where strategies to attract and retain top talent includes having a flexible work environment where workers are able to work from home. And the majority of workers feel more effective working in this manner as a recent survey highlighted that 91% of remote workers reported they’re more productive working remotely (Source: What leaders need to know about remote workers from TINYpulse who specialise in employee engagement).

However, changing to remote working just doesn’t magically improve productivity, information flow or teamwork. It’s heavily dependent on how leaders build a culture as work is a state of mind independent of location. It isn’t where you work but how you work. For managers, it’s about how you lead instead of how you manage.

Five ways leaders can lead a team dispersed remotely are:

  • Build your tribe - Seth Godin in the book Tribes says “a tribe is a group of people connected to one another, connected to a leader and connected to an idea.” For your team you need to consider how each member can be accessible to the team, feel part of the team, supported and have a sense of fun despite geographical locations.
  • Your availability - In the initial phase of remote working, it’s important for the leader to increase their availability to support the team. You need to know what’s either working well or isn’t, what are the frustrations and where do people need help (whether that be training, technology or just mentoring). In all teams, some people need more support and reassurance on an ongoing basis than others do.
  • Measure outcomes – Expectations need to be clearly set and measured accordingly. However, you need to know your business and measure lead measures and not just lag measures ie. if you want to lose weight the lead measures are the number of calories you consume and the amount of exercise you do, whereas the lag measure is weighing yourself on the scales. For your team the measure changes from visibility to activity ie. it’s not the greatest number of email or phone communications you have with a team member but it’s the level of work towards achieving KPI’s.
  • A place to hangout – Like the coffee machine in an office, people need as place a hangout to interact with their colleagues when working remotely. There are many tools available on the market with 2 suggestions to consider to help foster collaboration are: 
    • Slack - Messages, documents, video, voice and screens can be shared or exchanged in an interactive manne
    • Yammer - A privatised social network where everyone in a team or company can collaborate, share knowledge and engage in an interactive manner
  • Protocols – A critical area to get right with a remote team is to have clear protocols for:
    • Meetings – Determine the frequency, format and technology used for 1 on 1 and team meetings. Routines need to be clear on when meetings will occur, who will chair and take notes (to foster interaction think about rotating who leads each meeting and maintain attendee engagement by frequently asking questions). For technology consider video conferencing by GoToMeeting, Google Hangouts or Skype. Also, I’ve seen some cases where it’s been relevant for teams to have occasional (weekly or monthly) face to face meetings in the office or a meeting place. 
    • Team – The old saying “a champion team will beat a team of champions” is also true with remote teams. As a leader, you need to encourage team members to collaborate and support each other. If this doesn’t happen naturally then think about publicising examples of great teamwork or even pairing people as buddies as a first point of call and then routinely rotate buddies. 
    • Escalation – Regardless where we work we can run into roadblocks from time to time with the most severe situations stopping us in our tracks. Some people feel more isolated when this happens to them when they work remotely. While this is a perfect situation for the leader to help the team member, the reality is the leader isn’t available 24/7. To avoid productivity grinding to a halt there needs to be an escalation procedure in place ie. the severity (critical, medium, low level), who to escalate to and the means to escalate (phone call, email, broadcast on Slack etc). 
    • Hours – Flexibility is a key benefit of working remotely. However, trust can be lost if the leader thinks a team member is working and they find they’re not (leaders tend to like pleasant surprises but detest unpleasant surprises). As such, it’s important to have clarity around the expected hours of work (is it 9am – 5pm?) and degree of flexibility (the ability to integrate other activities with work). The leaders approach to this links back to how the leader manages outcomes.

In some ways managing remote teams is as much as anything about going back to the basics ie. what needs to be done for a person to do their job effectively, creating an environment for the work to happen and then measuring accordingly. If you’re able to build a rhythm in place for this to occur, then you’ll be leading not only a successful remote team but a GREAT team.