By Mark Hodson

The beauty of the technology we have today is that it makes the world a smaller place; and managing remote teams that are operating in far distant lands is so much easier.…theoretically.

Communicating across time zones, while it has its challenges, is much more doable with the ability to call, Skype and email. It sounds pretty simple, doesn’t it? But when it comes to large corporations that have capital projects overseas, as is the case in the energy industry, managing a remote team is a challenge – and far from simple.

Remote teams may be “out of sight,” but shouldn’t be “out of mind.”

Managers certainly have the right tools to coordinate with their remote teams, but unfortunately, they don’t always use those tools effectively; and sometimes those tools just aren’t a good substitute for old-fashioned face-to-face, personal interaction.

Remote teams need the same care and feeding as those that are physically present to managers and leadership. Workers that are far from home don’t want to feel as though they’re “out of sight, out of mind.” They need to know that they’re part of the company, that their managers and leadership care about them – and not just when things go wrong. As a manager, getting this right not only boosts morale and ensures team member loyalty, but it also improves productivity and project success.

What are the challenges faced by remote teams?

Remote teams, especially globally distributed teams, are faced with many challenges to varying degrees, depending on their location and the scope of their project. In general, these are the main challenges:

  • Time zone disparities. Time differences mean juggling meeting times to accommodate availability on different ends of the workday. The differences also mean waiting for responses and feedback depending on what part of the world you’re trying to coordinate with. For instance, you may have to wait several hours before your remote team manager wakes up on the distant end to answer a question.
  • Lack of visibility and accountability with parent organization. When teams are not physically present, workers miss the informal discussions that take place from seeing managers and other co-workers on a daily basis. These interactions often provide insight into what is going on and fosters a sense of identity with the company that’s harder to establish remotely. Along those same lines, managers have to make a concerted effort to acknowledge and stay in touch with their remote teams even if they can’t see them. Without regular, meaningful contact, remote teams can start feeling isolated and disconnected from the overall company culture.
  • Cultural and language differences – Particularly in globally distributed remote teams operating in foreign countries, cultural and language differences can have a significant impact on project success. Taking these differences into account is vital. It’s important to understand other cultures your teams are working with, their biases and different ways of doing business; and it’s equally important to ensure the language differences don’t become a barrier to communication.

The common thread through all these challenges is the need for effective communication. It’s no different than when you’re maximizing the success of cross-functional teams and trying to build a collaborative team culture. Marcy Zeichner of XL Insurance studied scores of projects where things went wrong and found that 27 percent of the failures were due to communications.

What does it take to communicate effectively with remote teams?

Now that we’ve established the need for communication, it’s worth noting that there’s a right way and a wrong way to communicate with your teams working on remote projects.

Here are five things that work (and a couple that don’t) when you’re managing a remote team:

  • Regular (at least weekly) video meetings/chat sessions – as well as impromptu contact. It’s important to set aside time to stay up to date with your remote teams at least once a week through a video chat or conference call. This gives your team members the chance to tell you what they’re doing and how they’re progressing while giving you the opportunity to provide necessary guidance and direction to what they’re doing. Calling on an impromptu basis – to follow up on issues or just to check in – lets your team know that they’re not just a scheduled date on your calendar each week, but that they’re on your mind throughout the week as well.
  • Personal visits. Visiting your team at a remote site sends a clear message that you, as a manager, care enough to take the time to see first-hand how your team is doing, what’s going well and what isn’t. It gives you the chance to talk to the workers at every level and keep your finger on the pulse of operations so you understand what’s going on from their perspective.
  • Provide tools to communicate effectively. Use technology to your advantage and create ways to help your team stay in touch. Setting up an intranet can be useful so you can combine various social collaboration tools such as calendars, blogs, forums, task lists, etc. in a shared environment. Make sure your remote team has all the updated software and technology they need.
  • Celebrate successes. Find ways to pat your remote workers on the back for something they have done right and publicly acknowledge it. Make sure leadership sees it too. This is always important for any of your workers regardless of whether they are remote or not, but recognizing those that you don’t see on a regular basis is important to let them know they’re not forgotten. Include those successes on company-wide communication that goes out to everyone so that the good work is appropriately recognized.
  • Team-building off-sites and retreats. Hold team building sessions away from the worksite or invite the teams to company-wide retreats to build those relationships outside of the immediate team and with the company at-large. This will pay dividends down the road when it comes to working with each other and accomplishing tasks. Build that sense of camaraderie.

What doesn’t work:

  • Over-reliance on email. Email has its advantages in that you can take the time to compose your thoughts, send it whenever you want and give the reader time to absorb your message at their convenience. However, the potential for miscommunication is always there, as is the tendency to “fire and forget.”  Emails don’t lend themselves to good discussion. Never email if you can call, and never call if you can video chat. The face-to-face contact works wonders for solving issues and establishing stronger relationships and trust between individuals.
  • Lack of transparency: Team members generally like to know what is going on with the company. This is even more important for remote teams because they are so far away from the center of operations and decision-making. Communicating, or even over-communicating, with the team and fully explaining why changes are occurring is key to developing trust within the company. Lack of transparency only leaves room for team members to question what’s going on, make potentially wrong assumptions, and lose faith in their leadership.

The Need to Feel Connected

Remote teams need to feel connected to their parent company to stay focused on the mission and task at hand. They need to know what’s going on, and they need to know that their managers care. If managers make the effort to communicate properly – to take the time to visit; hold the teams accountable while praising them for the hard work they’re doing; include them in on what’s going on with the company – those remote teams are going to identify more closely with their company and feel like they’re part of the family. Good morale and a strong sense of loyalty go a long way toward increased motivation to succeed not just for their own good, but for the good of the company – and that will ensure project success.

About the author

Mark Hodson

Mark Hodson Senior VP, (Global Core Clients) Career Experience Prior to joining Tercon Partners, Mark had a thirty-two year career at Eli Lilly and Company holding senior positions in Process Engineering, Human Resources, Performance Improvement (Six Sigma), Capital Program Management and Capital Sourcing Management. In one assignment, he had responsibility for initiating and growing a joint...

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