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Managing a team that is not there

A friend said something to me at a recent conference that struck me.

It came after a presentation on how a cloud-based tool enabled a network manager to securely maintain close control of the tech used by a dispersed sales team working remotely. My friend turned to me with a worried expression on her face and said, “I’m not sure we’ve been adequately tooling up our students in preparation for this. It’s a bit of a paradigm shift in management practice, this.”

My friend was talking about the lurch toward a team structure that is based largely in the cloud. While I thought her surge of panic was misplaced (and told her so), I pondered it a little more on the train home. While schools of management have had learning strategies down pat, it is also true to say that most management techniques are grounded in personal communication.

However, the sea change in technology has meant that more teams (especially those working exclusively in the digital medium) are temporally displaced, spatially separated or unevenly distributed — or, more commonly, a mixture of the three.

There are many benefits to quality and productivity associated with the shift toward remote and flexible working practices, but there is also a problematic side to weigh. With the lack of interpersonal contact come the shadowy possibilities of reduced trust, truncated communications and simple misunderstandings, not to mention business-critical problems like maintaining a secure consistency of device use and storage of data.

How can we advise managers how to deal best with the fact that their staff might well not be within a desk’s reach any more?

To do this, I’ve broken up the approach into four key areas for managers of virtual teams to think about as they negotiate this “paradigm shift”:

Underpinning principles

The first thing to think about is the key tenets of your managerial approach. Actually, these might not be too different from before the cloud.

First, be ready to assume absolutely nothing. Check and double-check everything. Working remotely will require you to embed transparent working practices where output is easily measurable and visible, where all time is made accountable, and it will require that you have systems to counter the lack of interpersonality this working practice invokes. But you will still have to check rigorously.

So err on the side of the personal, go over and above the contact-reporting processes, schedule regular reviews and make the physical effort to meet people in person, regardless of the distances involved. By doing this, you will get more buy-in from your staff to the transparency-based processes you intend to use.

At the same time, this will build trust — they are less likely to feel nervous about being open with you if you have looked them in the eye and told them why this way is necessary. Moreover, organize your team’s time so no matter what the temporal gaps, there is a regular overlap where your team is functioning synchronously.

Transparency-based tech

As project leader or team manager, whichever Web-based project managerial system you use will be key. When choosing this tool, you would be wise to make sure it includes the following attributes:

  • The ability to set crystal-clear objectives
  • Visible progress with regard to deadlines (and the moving of deadlines)
  • A flexibility regarding input, task management and information-sharing repositories
  • A facility to assign specific tasks (and sub-tasks) to individuals
  • A visual representation of output that is visible by all

Consistent communication

The dispersed team means that, to communicate effectively and efficiently, you are best advised to introduce a faultlessly consistent approach.

There is a proliferation of digital media and channels for talking with your team and vice versa — you just need to be clear on which channel is used for what within the context of your team and its projects.

If everyone uses a different channel for conflicting purposes, miscommunication will be rife. So clarify at the outset how you expect e-mail, chat, phone conferences, video conferences and message boards on your project-management tool to be used, and for what.

With regard to your personal contribution, you may well decide that a policy to overcompensate is actually the most fail-safe policy. It is a good idea too, when working remotely and trying to articulate a complex technical idea, to use video capture tools to do this.

Balance and empower

Finally, with the nexus of the team so structurally scattered, it’s a good idea to think how you can coax effective and healthy working relationships between team members outside of your own communications.

To do this you need to make sure that there is a healthy balance between task-related projects and socio-emotional ones. Socio-emotional tasks are those that involve interaction, mutual support and coordination. They are also interpersonal projects, which they drive themselves, whereas task-related projects are usually those that can be completed independently.

By empowering your staff this way, and paying attention to their project balance, you show them that you also entrust them to be able to perform effectively and to a high level without your own hands-on management. When you do this, your trust will be repaid and you build genuine team spirit no matter how great the geographical distance between you and your team.

Matthew Pink is a digital editor at Further.