The most cutting-edge companies of the moment have conflicting visions of employee productivity. Google lavishes its workers with free buffet meals, gym access and shuttles to and from work in an effort to keep them on premises and keep them happy. Facebook and Twitter have taken a similar approach.
Others, like Automattic, GitHub and Mozilla, reason that the best perk you can offer employees is the ability to avoid coming in to an office at all. All three are distributed companies, meaning most workers do their jobs remotely.
While both models may make sense, the latter is probably more viable if you’re a startup that can’t afford to offer free lunches and a $1,000 yearly deductible cap for hospitalization. For such firms, going the distributed route will allow you to keep costs down, give employees flexibility and choose from among the best workers in the country, regardless of geography.
Collaborative software, videoconferencing and web-based tools have removed barriers that once required workers to be on premises. As a result, more and more workers are choosing the distributed team option. Forrester Research predicts that by 2016 some 43 percent of the U.S. workforce, or 63 million people, will telecommute. That’s up from 34 million in 2009. A survey by Regus showed that 68% of companies thought that offering workers a flexible environment led to higher revenues.
Of course, there’s a downside to the distributed team model as well. Not everyone is more productive when they work remotely -- some people take advantage and goof off when they are supposed to be working. Also, it can also be hard to get in touch with remote employees when something urgent happens.
There are challenges, in other words, but it’s certainly not impossible to effectively manage remote teams. I’ve led both remote and on-site professionals and non-professionals alike.
Here are five best practices for leading remote teams that I’ve gleaned over the years, some of which were learned the hard way.
1. Set clear standards of communication.
Depending on the type of work you do, a daily or even a couple of daily meetings might be required to ensure team cohesiveness. Mandy Brown, the CEO of Editorially, a collaborative writing platform that was bought by Vox Media last year, advocates that remote teams overcommunicate on purpose. “On a remote team, opportunities for misunderstanding between teammates distributed across both time and geography magnify,” she wrote. Brown says one effective way to ensure communication is to record meetings so that anyone confused about what has transpired can go back and look at the record. Communication is key to effectively leading remote and distributed teams. Setting up the standard for communication and requiring it be followed will be critical.
2. Optimize the right kinds of communication tools.
Productivity pros will tell you that the best way to ensure a remote participant fully engages during a meeting is to talk to them via videoconference. Otherwise, employees will merely call in and then multitask or zone out while they’re on the call.
These days, offices have a wide variety of communication tools to choose from, including internal social networks, chatrooms and digital whiteboards, among others. Email is undoubtedly the most popular but some consider the least efficient mode of communication. Train your workers to use alternatives but require they videoconference when working in your distributed team.
3. Pay close attention to what is happening within teams.
If, like most offices, you break your work up into teams, make sure they have mastered highly effective communication within their respective teams. For example, if your project manager is not on top of things with the product development team, you will find that some members of the team are working on aspects of the project that make no sense in relation to the overall strategy or, worse, that they are working on the same tasks in different ways. Any team lead of your distributed teams must be a highly effective communicator, accountable to you and your fellow executives and have a strong handle at all times of what every member within his/her team is working on at that time.
4. Hold people accountable.
As mentioned, the primary temptation with a remote work situation or for distributed teams is that people will take advantage and slack off. That’s why it’s crucial to lay down some goals and expectations for each employee and ensure that those expectations are being met. Try to toe the line though between micro-managing and merely communicating those desires and expectations. In some cases, a remote situation can be unworkable. If you think this is the case, before making a drastic change, check the data (e.g. VPN logs).
5. Pick your remote partners wisely.
Because of the latitude that’s inherent in remote work, you need people of good character and who are self-starters. Make sure you interview them thoroughly and check references. If something doesn’t smell right or you sense an attitude, don’t ignore your gut instinct.
The greatest challenges I have experienced in leading remote or distributed teams all stemmed from the attitude of a few rotten apples. Their attitudes tainted their management of the teams or projects with whom and which they were charged, causing more damage in the long run. A poor communication style is often symptomatic of an attitude issue. In retrospect, there were breadcrumbs that ultimately led me to the conclusion that these individuals needed to be “managed out” or terminated. The only regret is not doing so earlier in those cases and those are experiences we learn from once and never repeat again.
Working with distributed teams means doing things a bit differently. You have to put a little more effort into many aspects of work-life, including communication and vetting potential employees.
The upside is huge, though. People who thrive in a remote environment will ultimately require less management and less of your time than workers who rely on the trappings of an office environment. In this arrangement, you are more partners than captives of a hierarchical top-down management system. For highly effective self-starters, the freedom to operate will prove more appealing than a free buffet lunch.