During early part of my career, I was part of the outsourcing industry. In one of my earlier jobs at the time, we had five teams. Leadership team decided to implement Business Continuity Plan and have a DR site established i.e. Disaster Recovery site. This is done to ensure the operations continue in case there is any disaster at the main site. As part of this effort, a new team was set up in a different location. Although under 350 miles away, we began to feel they were much farther. I witnessed first hand the pros and cons of managing a remote team. Lots of meetings, lots of scrutiny, lack of trust, preferential treatment to folks on site than those who were remote, stronger unity amongst team members who were based remote, may be because they never had it easy and so on. I understood quickly that remote teams were crucial for success and managing them efficiently, in an unbiased manner was the key to the overall success.
Decades later, situation has changed significantly. Remote teams are now part of organizations world over. You can find examples of this all around you.
Remote teams may seem like a dream for those who dread having to deal with people every single day, but trust me you, it ain’t as easy as it sounds and promises to be. If you look at the US and India, two major countries handling software development, medical, legal and allied tasks, working with remote teams set off almost two decade ago when thousands of jobs from the US were moved to India, Philippines and China, over half of them concerning IT and computer related.
For companies like Google, Microsoft, Apple, IBM and Dell, having remote teams meant saving a large sum of money that would otherwise would have been spent on salaries at US levels after getting these people to the US, it posed different challenges to leaders. If, for the US companies, remote teams meant saving on valuable real estate and related overheads, for those employees working for these companies from remote locations, it meant the advantage of working for MNCs while staying close to their families.
Origins of remote work and teams
The whole concept of having people working from distant locations would have been unimaginable had there not been what we know as the internet. Not to say that people didn’t work remotely when there was no internet, they did, but internet made it extremely easy, fast, efficient and cost saving for that. Yes, there have been media houses, newspapers, production companies and bullion markets that worked remotely even without internet, but the way they functioned would at best be called ‘crude’ and ‘primitive’ by today’s standards – when people needed to connect to get latest updates on stock markets and news by using telegram and dial-in phones. I wouldn’t blink an eyelid if I dared say that the conquistadors of the past- the Spanish, British, the French, the Romans and the Greek, who conquered and managed colonies as far away as India and Australia, also practiced remote teams in some way, but tales galore of how difficult it was.
Today’s teams connect real time as if they are all sitting together in one hall. However, the grass always looks greener on the other side. If people had, for long, wished they could spend more time at home, they are in for a big shock when working from home became the necessity and the new norm. It does have its own pros and cons and it is upto companies and the employees to decide what works best for them, though there are no other options to continue work at least in the near future.
What has helped companies opt for remote teams
Seamless Communication-The most important concern about the efficiency of remote teams has always been the mode of communication. While nothing can fill in for actual presence and real time meeting, today’s modes of communication have facilitated that to a large extent. A video call among team members feels almost as if all are in one room. Real time work sharing software and apps like Sway, Trello, Slack, Flock andZoho among others, helps team members to be updated about who is doing what, enables them to access, share and edit work and be in touch in real time. These features have gone beyond marking all members in CC to emails. Add to that the facilities like Zoom, Google Suite, Streamyard, Conference call and screen sharing facilities, transcription, subtitling and call mergers that allow for seamless flow of work across several platforms and you have a potent mix of everything one would need to function effectively.
The boon of Cloud storage– What would companies do if clouds were not available. Today, a large part of the company’s data is stored in clouds that make it accessible to people across geographies so that work never stops.
Productivity tracker- Team leaders need not wait for a face-to-face session for performance appraisal every few days. Every member’s work is updated in real time and is marked against targets. That makes it easy to track the remote team’s performance on a daily basis.
How remote teams help
Most business owners would swear by the efficiency of remote teams because they save a large amount of money in real estate and overheads in countries where the cost of living is high. It’s a win-win situation for both parties – the company and the remote worker (who works at the company office or from home but in some remote place). While the company saves on crucial money, the talented worker gets employment in a great company while being in his own country. He/she does not complain that the salary is given in the home country’s currency.
Companies don’t have to take efforts in aligning all employees coming from diverse cultures to adapt to the company culture in the form of everyday behavior. Shared values and core beliefs apart, there is little to worry about in terms of cultural disparity, culture shock, culture training and more.
In the current scenario when teams are working from home from remote locations, it has become easier for leaders to monitor teams from the comfort of homes. Since commuting time is saved, employees are more relaxed, get to spend time with family, have home cooked food and are better focused.
Companies find it beneficial to allow remote teams to function because they also save on paying for cabs, cars, drivers, fuel expenses, uniforms, workplace lunches and many such expenses which are completely unnecessary when working from home.
Challenges of Managing Remote Teams
However glamorous it may sound to be able to work from home and from remote locations, not having to go to office on those crowded roads and to be able to be at home amongst family, working remotely is not all cakewalk. It does pose several of its own challenges.
For starters, people sitting at diverse locations have to be aligned and brought on the same page when it comes to sharing the company’s goals and objectives. What happens effortlessly when people come together, see each other and their behavior and learn from one another is not easily possible online.
Leaders find it challenging to keep track of work , especially when employees choose flexi timing options. Not allowing certain concessions would face the risk of losing key employees.
Maintaining attendance, work schedules, scheduling meetings also becomes a task, which would otherwise have happened easily while in office when you see who is doing what, how and how much.
For employees, working from home has not been an easy option, especially if they have space constraints, don’t have a spare room to convert into a home office, have small kids to look after or live in a noisy neighborhood.
Not everybody is comfortable working 100% online. Especially the middle-aged executives whose natural style of working wasn’t comfortable with online, find it challenging to connect with others, work and stay motivated all the while being alone and away from office.
Some companies request employees to take a pay cut to opt for working from home. That could pose another problem in reduced income levels.
Too much of working with computers strains your eyes, results in neck and back pain and could leave you feeling bloated after hours. The home environs provide little space for relaxing or walking around. That leaves you with no energy to pursue online courses over and above your hectic online work.
People find it difficult to socialize online. Having online meetings and interactions may be a functional option but can never replace making friends over coffee and hanging out with colleagues post hours. A lot of people today have friends from the workplace because that is the best and easiest way to socialize. Remote working has robbed the charm out of it altogether. Many people complain of feeling disoriented, lonely, fatigued and lost after working remotely for a long time. There could be complex psychological problems for those who are by nature gregarious and extroverts. Several companies have offered counseling for employees to address such issues.
14 Tips to efficiently manage remote teams
Having managed several remote teams myself, I found the below to be quite helpful.
- Maintain a proper time schedule and track attendance. Although remote working allows flexible work atmosphere and some amount of freedom, tracking time and attendance helps employees stay alert about their work schedule.
- Keep a proper productivity tracking record. If your company works with a software for that, it automatically updates every employee’s daily work for the team leader to assess daily
- If you are working with employees in different time zones, ensure meetings happen at times suitable for all. There can be no alternative to meeting online at least once a day when all come together face to face.
- Leaders must ensure that they are open to communication on a one-to-one basis for every employee at least for some time. That allows direct connect with them and also provides them the option to express their personal issues openly
- Just because employees are working from home, doesn’t mean the team leader can overburden them. Encourage employees to detach from work related calls and emails after work hours unless absolutely necessary
- Some aspects of on-boarding and working like training, introduction to other key personnel and performance appraisal must be an ongoing process albeit online.
- Screen sharing option allows experts to collaborate on fixing problems or glitches if any during work
- Hold daily review of the work completed and give immediate feedback. That allows employees to stay alert about the work’s progress and also helps in course correction.
- Spare some time for some bonding between employees and leaders. Have some fun too. Who says online and remote work needs to be always drab? Send fun and encouraging messages, memes and quotes to boost morale. Have some pep talk. Encourage employees to share their life’s anecdotes and experiences. Bonding always helps employees feel ‘connected’ to the company.
- Celebrate birthdays and other important occasions together over video calls. Have some chats, crack jokes and find and crate opportunities to connect together, just as you would over a cup of tea or at the canteen for lunch, while working in office. Otherwise remote working would alienate employees.
- Maintain decorum about time, attire and process while conducting business meetings with clients and other stakeholders. Just because employees are working from home doesn’t mean they can be seen to be casual.
- Address issues of employees like good quality laptops, internet connectivity and software. In case of any issues, the company can make provisions and help the employees as much as possible. Several companies the world over upgraded the employees’ laptops to enable them better work from home.
- For optimum utilization of time and seamless connectivity for specific projects, companies could think of having people from a common geography and time zone.
- Discourage use of casual language, slang and too many abbreviations in formal communication. Many employees, especially the young ones, are used to using small forms of words like ‘Pls. , FYI, BTW’, for it shows poorly on your professionalism.
As organizations are expediting their digital transformation programs, thanks to the Covid19 Pandemic, remote teams are here to stay. If you are looking at growing into a people manager or a leader, it is extremely likely that you will be managing one or several remote teams. It therefore paramount that you understand the intricacies of efficiently managing one.
If there are any other actions you have taken to manage your remote teams, comment them below. I would love to hear from you.
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