Our society has undergone deep transformation with the boom of information and communication technologies. Work is no longer subject to the constraints of space: nomad workers, home workers, around-the-clock teams - leveraging time differences to work 24 hours a day, virtual teams, or simply teams scattered around the country…
Whereas remote management might have been considered as a « second best » solution in its beginnings, it is now the compelling configuration of our organisations in the « global village » because of the fabulous access it gives us to markets, materials and human resources all around the world.
The new ways of working together that these technologies allow have jostled many aspects of management: trust and control, freedom and autonomy, team feeling and the risk of isolation. Here are a few directions for thought and action.
The essence of management: the human factor
Remote teamwork can sometimes appear as a technophile’s fantasy. We are all aware of the possibilities offered by these tools: recent figures show that remote work generates a rise in productivity and a decrease in absenteeism . But many managers feel wary about the use of these tools in their managerial tasks: how can you organize high-level performance in your team, monitor and motivate remote team-members? The profusion of communication and team-working tools highlights the need for good management skills.
One of the main worries of a manager is how to coordinate the team efficiently when time and space are fragmented. For me, it is essential for the team to have a « heartbeat », a regular rhythm of contact times: is there a weekly slot where all the team can meet, taking into account differences in time zones and working hours?
Coordination also means setting up the « rules of the game » for the team: these are the set of behaviours, authorized or required, that contribute to individual and team efficiency. They bear upon questions that remote team-members might have: am I allowed to...? What is the usual way to ...? They are thought up on the basis of problems encountered by team-members and are the foundation of trust in a remote team.
E-mail and remote team misery
The best area for building team rules is the use of e-mail, which has become a source of misery for many remote teams. Overuse of email can be a symptom of a dysfunctional team. Atos has decided to stop the use of e-mail internally , a sign of the risk of inefficiency that this communication tool can generate.
The codes for politeness in writing letters are clear (although they can be rather quaint, as in French « I beg you to accept, dear Sir, Madam, the expression of my highest consideration... »). When it comes to e-mail writing, « netiquette » rules are uncertain. In addition to identifying the communication habits that are to be encouraged in the team, it is useful to set rules about C.C. and response times to reduce typical pain points in remote teamwork.
The temptation to reduce management to simply supervising team activity is strong. The tools can create the illusion that by dint of e-mails, screen sharing and other forms of file sharing, you can effectively manage your team. On the contrary, it is essential to bring to light the human dimension of teamwork and compensate what is lacking due to distance. How can you catalyse a group of human beings, project contributors, team-workers, experts in a network, when they don’t share some place together? What can you set up for them so that they have access to the benefits of informal moments at work?
Planning informal communication
Remote managers need to think of opportunities for informal communication: you need to create a « virtual coffee machine »! (Americans refer to a « virtual water cooler »). What happens there? People get to know each other through small talk, they share ideas on the spur of the moment, or they solve minor emergencies. In your remote team, it can take the shape of an item on the weekly meeting agenda (« Any other business »), a corporate social network, meeting rituals such as including 5 minutes at the beginning of your Skype meeting to talk about the weather, literally, in the places where the meeting participants are seated. It is a way of giving signs of recognition and taking into account remote environments.
Giving up the idea of omnipresence
Many managers want to compensate not being at the side of their employees by being available 24 hours a day. That manager needs to learn to give up the idea of being omnipresent and set up a system that s/he is no longer the centre of. Sharing an online calendar with the team that shows the manager’s availabilities is useful.
Remote managers are managers who need to be good at delegating. They should encourage discussions between their employees through workgroups, working in twos, mentoring, organizing back-ups. By setting up processes about how information circulates, clarifying roles and responsibilities, identifying talents and expertise, the manager’s standpoint evolves from being a communication hub to becoming a control tower.
Time will tell if Digital natives will be better managers than their parents were. Indeed it is not mastering communication technology that makes a good remote manager - nor is it hierarchical power, which turns out to be less effective in remote organisations. This type of management requires more preparation and thought given to what managing consists in concretely, explicitly including the interpersonal dimension.
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