Leading Remote and Distributed Teams

Not so long ago a 'team' typically meant a group of people located in the same building who had daily face-to-face interaction. Times have changed, and increasingly a team may include members in different locations, even different continents and time zones. They might even belong to other organisations - such as contractors or joint-venture partners.

In the first of a two-part article we look at the factors behind this pattern. Next month we will discuss how leaders of such teams can help them to become more effective.

Why is this happening?
On the face of it remote team working seems to be adding unwelcome complexities to the already challenging arena of effective team-working. So what lies behind this trend?
Several factors seem to be at work:

  • Businesses are becoming more global
    Most businesses started off as domestic companies, and as they grew they sought out foreign markets to sustain their expansion. The need for consistency of product and service delivery across national boundaries meant the creation of global business units, global or regional account management teams etc. all of which require the capability to co-ordinate resources around the world.

  • Lean organisations
    Competitive pressures have led to organisational streamlining, which means that fewer people are employed on a full-time, permanent basis. At the same time there has be an increase in the use of contractors, outsourcing, temps and part timers. These resources are often of high calibre and engaged in anything but routine work.
    Thus the work of many managers involves integrating resources both inside and outside the organisation to meet their business objectives. A European Business Manager for Microsoft comments ' for one of my projects I have to co-ordinate a team spread across no fewer than eight partner organisations. In fact I spend 60% of my time working with my external team. The effective management of this team is a major objective on which I am measured'.

  • Partnering
    Because knowledge is becoming more complex and more specialised, companies do not always have the time to grow their own capabilities if they are to take advantage of new market opportunities. Instead they develop extensive networks of alliances and partnerships. Once they have found the right partner, the challenge becomes how to work with them effectively across organisational boundaries.

  • Pace of Change
    Companies need flexible structures and business processes to keep pace with the rapidly changing business environment. To support new initiatives such as the development of new products, services, technologies or markets, project teams are formed and re-formed using the best available resources wherever they reside.

  • The Knowledge Worker
    Over the last century the shift in economic emphasis from agriculture to industry to services to knowledge work has progressively released work from the shackles of location. It is possible to work in remote locations yet still participate in global activities. Software firms in the U.S. use programmers in India to write their code. In the Knowledge era workers do not have to 'go to work'; the work flows to the worker.

  • Communication technologies
    Finally, the rapid development and wide availability of sophisticated communications technology has enabled this revolution gain pace. At one time this relied upon the organisation itself having an extensive communication network.
    For example Digital Equipment Corporation, where I worked in the mid-1980s, had the world's largest computer-to-computer network in private (non-government) hands. E-mail and computer conferencing were simply the way we worked. As a manager there, my team included a Romanian in Geneva, an American in Paris, a Dutch trainer, and even my UK-based staff worked from home. Later I directed a project where the team included a Business school professor and an administrator in France (external), an internal administrator in the US, two Digital consultants in the US and an external consultant in the UK. What's more, in my eleven years with the company I was never based in the same country as my manager. Difficult as it was at times, team-working was immensely aided by access to the right technology.
    With the advent of the Internet, these resources are increasingly available to cross-organisational teams or to organisations without the technology infrastructure of their own. The Internet may be a very public place but it is possible to carve out private spaces within it. For example a new ProjectWorker product will allow team members to log onto a Web site to view common files, update project plans, read notices, exchange e-mails or even to interact in a chat room. This dramatically reduces the management effort needed to co-ordinate between team members and to monitor progress.

Next month:
Leading a distributed team
Building close relationships across distances
Making use of the technology
Working across time zones

Published on HBC Web-site 09/2000

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