How to lead from afar
How to lead from afar
Navigating the obstacle course
Just managing one team is often enough of a responsibility – so overseeing a number of teams across a range of countries requires constant planning and maintenance. Cultural differences, language barriers, lack of overall direction and poor team cohesion are all potential obstacles for managers leading teams based in different locations.
We've found that by sticking to some key practices it’s easier to get everyone to gel, wherever they happen to be in the world. This advice is applicable to those managing teams across different offices, regions and even, as in my case, countries.
Here are six of these key practices:
1. Prioritise personality
Some individuals need constant access to their boss to feel secure and satisfied. This is a concern which, as a remote manager, you won’t be able to assuage. You need to consider this when recruiting for your separate teams.
Try and source candidates who are self-motivated, dependable, independent and good at communicating. You should be focusing as much on the right personality in your hiring process as ability and expertise; “Skills can be taught and mastered, whilst personality and character often cannot,” says Matthew Dickason in ‘Prioritising personality in your hiring process’.
It’s also important that you trust the individuals to manage their time effectively and not abuse the freedom of having a remote manager by being ‘out of the office’ with no reason or pre-warning. If you do not know where your staff are then you’re at risk of wasting time and money, whilst you can also damage the performance and reputation of your business
2. Use tools to make communication easier
Communication is paramount and having the right tools is important to ensure that everyone can stay in touch easily, as well as get the information they need quickly when they need it. That means using tools such as Skype, Yammer, Sqwiggle, and Google Hangouts to help with online meetings and video chats.
These are free or inexpensive solutions that help to keep the lines of communication open and flowing; just remember to make sure everyone has access to and knows how to use the tools – which you can ensure through proper on-boarding and training when an employee first joins the business.
“Providing talent with the right tools, in particular giving them the right technology and training to be even more effective at their jobs, is critical if you want to win in the productivity game,” says our CEO Alistair Cox.
We always encourage remote staff to communicate with each other, as well as with myself, frequently so they can exchange ideas, share experiences (good and bad), and feel as though they’re part of a greater whole. Online communication tools are great for this, but face-to-face time is priceless, so make sure you’re providing your teams with both. Verbal communication versus email also removes the element of misinterpretation of messaging.
3. Establish a collective vision
It goes without saying that it’s important your team fully understands what the business aims are. This is one of your principal responsibilities as team leader. Alistair Cox has identified two key steps towards establishing a collective vision: firstly, breaking out of silos and, secondly, simplifying your vision.
Language differences can actually help simplify your vision because they force you to keep things straightforward and crystal clear at all times, but my approach is the same even when there is no language barrier. If the vision is coherent and consistent, this will help with the alignment of goals across the teams.
Secondly, and this builds into the previous point, encourage communication as much as possible. Whether it be between teams, between yourself and them or even between other departments within the business and them, such exchanges will only help to bolster your employees wider understanding of how the business operates.
Make sure your teams understand your vision and goals, but also make sure you’re sensitive and attuned to their individual preferred methods of working. For example some employees may want to lean on you and your immediate team for advice more often than others – do what it takes to make sure everyone feels competent and satisfied!
4. Don’t only talk shop
When communicating with remote employees, it can be easy to only talk about work but as important as that is – and in some instances it is all that matters – I always try and chat about events local to them or about what they’re into in terms of sport, activities or other interests when they’re not at work. It can sometimes be hard to establish robust relationships with individuals who you don’t work with on a daily or even weekly basis, however getting to know your teams on a personal level is important to developing rapport which invariably contributes towards higher job satisfaction and productivity levels.
This also means keeping up with the news in their country as well as getting to understand any cultural nuances or practices that are likely to be relevant. Basically, show them that you’re interested and that you care. In my experience, if you can build a good rapport with remote staff it’s great for morale, they’re more likely to open up about any problems they may have, and it encourages a more collaborative approach.
5. Delegate as much as possible
If you’re managing multiple teams across multiple locations then realistically it’s going to be impossible to infiltrate every aspect of their working day. That’s why delegation – although an integral tool for all leaders – is especially important to those whose employees are spread across different offices.
Wait until you’ve understood everyone’s roles and how they fit into the company before you start dishing out tasks – you don’t want to upset the applecart by mistakenly asking employees to work outside of their remit.
It can also be tempting to try and manage teams single-handedly, but under these circumstances this is particularly unlikely, so I make a point of delegating this responsibility as much as possible. This comes back to the second point about establishing a collective vision; making sure everyone understands your vision so you do not have to issue constant reminders.
6. Be sensitive to schedule inconvenience
Lastly, being sensitive to any time differences between your office and the remote team’s location is a small and perhaps obvious point, but something that you need to remain constantly aware of when implementing deadlines or scheduling calls.
That spur of the moment call may seem like a good idea to you at 5pm in Antwerp, but if your remote team is based in India then, no matter how dedicated they are, they won’t thank you for it. What this has meant in practice is that I will schedule the call for a time that suits them best – usually during normal office hours – even if it’s of some inconvenience to me.
A final thought
Managing teams across different offices, regions or countries is always going to be tricky, and you might find that it takes a while to refine and perfect your own way of doing things.
Being far enough removed to allow your teams a sense of autonomy, whilst also being involved enough to make sure they’re satisfied and productive is a difficult balance to achieve. Hopefully, however, the above advice will act as a springboard for you to establish what works best for you and your teams.