Leading Remote and Distributed Teams

This is the second of a two-part article on Leading Remote and Distributed Teams.
In last month's article we looked at the growth in the use of remote and distributed teams. Various factor have contributed to this shift, and now it is far from unusual for managers to co-ordinate the efforts of people in different locations and different organisations to achieve a common goal.

Leading a distributed team
Often a manager leading a distributed team for the first time experiences an acute sense of loss of control. He or she is no longer able to supervise work directly.
Are team members in other offices are working assiduously - are they even there?
How can the manager motivate people in other organisations where the usual rewards and sanctions are not at her disposal? In many ways the tasks of leading a distributed team are the same as for a co-located team. Any team effort requires a clear sense of purpose, defined roles and responsibilities and common work processes. However, the means of achieving this need some adaptation. For example, whilst team leaders must define the outcomes, there is value in turning over some of the process definition and role clarification to the team itself, or to a working party within the team. This will foster an intensive interaction between team members and set up channels for communication and decisions that do not all flow through the team leader. The team leader must deliberately foster the sort of colleague-to-colleague interaction that arises spontaneously among those sharing the same office environment.

The role of relationships
Important as definition of purpose and process are, the extra ingredient in many teams is a sense of belonging, of commitment to each other and not just to a task, which will spur the team on in times of difficulty.
The importance of this will vary according to the nature of the work. Some work can be well defined in advance with clearly understood inputs and outputs. However, in other areas neither the outcomes nor the means of achieving them are clear from the outset, but rather arrived at through iterative work and the gradual development of shared meaning. It is here that the separation of team members is most problematic.
If at all possible, the investment of time and money to bring the team together can really pay dividends in terms of the trust and common understanding that can be built. A danger here is to fill such a meeting with presentations and, with one eye on the budget, to keep it as short and task focused as possible. Remember that one-way communication of information can be achieved by many means, but the sort of rich two-way interaction that builds relationships and understanding takes place most easily face-to-face. It is unlikely that such meetings will be frequent, so they must be designed to achieve understanding and bonding, not simply the transmission of information.

We have the technology
Between meetings, and where meetings are not possible, communication will usually rely on various forms of electronic communication; e-mail, telephone and video-conferences, groupware etc. Such technologies have great value, but must be used and used well if they are to make a difference to team effectiveness. At the risk of stating the obvious, all team members should be proficient and familiar with the technologies used, and also to be aware of their limitations.
In one major corporation, it was the practice to 'link in' remote team members to meetings taking place at corporate headquarters. The link took the form of a speaker/microphone placed on the conference table with the remote team members straining to hear what was happening at the meeting over a telephone line. Not only did the meeting go on for several hours, severely straining the concentration of the remote listeners, but often presenters would forget to send out copies of their slides so there would be no visual clues as to what was going on. Although intended to 'include' outlying team members, it did anything but.
The techniques and dynamics of a telephone meeting are different from a face-to-face meeting. One example is that free-flowing discussion is difficult when you can't see who is speaking, or judge when they have finished. The meeting leader needs to structure the participation carefully so that participants are clear about what is being discussed, when they should contribute their views and when they should be listening to others.

What time is it where you are?
Time-zones create yet another complication, especially in the scheduling of 'real-time' communications. One team that held a regular 45-minute telephone conference each week, found that the participant in the US was drinking her coffee before setting off for the office, whilst the Japanese team member was sipping his whisky after a day's work. It is all too convenient to default to 'corporate time' or 'majority time', requiring the same team member(s) to give up leisure time or even their night's sleep every time. Logical as it may seem, it does nothing to build a sense of belonging. At the very least it is important to acknowledge and appreciate the extra effort made by those who stay late or come in early.

In 1982 John Naisbett, in his book Megatrends, coined the phrase 'High-Tech/HighTouch' to suggest that every advance in technology must be counterbalanced with efforts to build the human contacts. The advent of widely available electronic communication may well have enabled people to work apart but with the risk of reducing them to faceless names on an e-mail distribution list. Team effectiveness in the electronic age relies on just the same human factors as it ever did - communication, a sense of achievement, common purpose, appreciation and group celebration. The challenge to the team leader is to put sufficient effort into the people dimension of team-working that the power of technology can be harnessed without its de-personalising effects.

Published on HBC Web-site 10/2000

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