Managing a team remotely

For many years ABE’s Director of Business Development, Steve Smith,  has led a large international team with no two people based in the same country.  Now, with so many of us having to work from home, he shares his experience to help others faced with the challenge of managing their team remotely for the first time.

Managing a team remotely

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, to succeed in the global economy, more companies were relying on a geographically dispersed workforce, building teams that offered the best functional expertise from around the world, combined with deep, local knowledge and drawing on the benefits of international diversity.

But managers who lead teams remotely are often faced with real challenges. Creating successful work groups is hard enough when everyone shares the same office space, but when team members are working in different locations, communication can rapidly deteriorate, misunderstanding can ensue, and cooperation can degenerate into distrust. Besides the distance between team members, if people are from different countries you also have to take into account barriers such as language and cultural differences.

The good news you can meet these challenges, applying basic management skills is a must, but you have to go above and beyond that if you want to successfully grow and manage a remote team. There are a number of ways to accomplish this goal, here are some of the most useful techniques I have learnt and employed successfully.

Have a clearly defined structure and plan

To ensure things run smoothly, you need to have a clearly defined structure and plan in place. This includes establishing your business and team strategies, goals and objectives.  You must then clearly define expectations, and have a backup plan for all the possible ‘uncontrollables’ that may, and do, arise day to day when working across multiple locations.

Start by communicating goals and expectations, follow this up by communicating with the team frequently (as in several times a day!), and by designing systems to ensure you can clearly measure their performance.

Once you have a clear structure and plan in place - it’s easier to grow and manage your team's operations.

Strong communication

Thanks to technology, communicating with team members over numerous locations isn't as challenging as it used to be. While you could always pick up the phone or send an email, you can now also get in touch with team members via a range of other channels.

Remember that if they are in different countries, you may not get an immediate response. Always being very clear and efficient with communication is particularly important with team members across time zones, when long response times can slow down progress.

At ABE I use a blend of formal weekly catch-ups via Skype, Zoom and Teams with daily communication via email, phone, WhatsApp etc.  Constant communication and daily touch points with remote teams is for me as important as it gets, that is the way I ensure that everyone in my team is working on plan, and that we are moving quickly and efficiently.

Be aware of differences and difficulties

One of the most important things to be conscious of when managing a remote team are cultural differences and personal issues which can be harder to assess than when you are seeing someone face to face.  The best way to handle this is by practicing an adaptive approach. 

Some of the main differences I always try and be aware of when working on an international basis, include:

  • Time zones
  • Social norms
  • Language
  • Holidays / religious celebrations
  • Connectivity
  • Labour laws
  • Business-related laws, ethics, and practices
  • Personal-privacy laws

Establish Trust

Finally, you have to establish trust amongst your team members. This way if someone is experiencing  difficulties they will be comfortable enough to tell you what the problem is.  But, that is easier said than done. So, how exactly can you build trust especially with a remotely based team?

I do it by defining and sharing the core values of our brand. By clearly and consistently re-enforcing to my team how we will work together to accomplish goals and milestones.

I build trust by being honest and keeping my promises, and by expecting my team to do the same. I also ensure that my team feel connected and part of day to day ‘business as usual’ , despite being based remotely – making sure the team feels part of the organisation is critical. And, most importantly, I make the effort to get to know my team, professionally, their strengths, weaknesses, but also to get to know them as people, what drives them, what is important to them.  I believe more than anything else leadership and business ultimately is about people - numbers matter, technology matters, efficiency matters - but they don't matter nearly as much as people do. To succeed in business, you have to understand and value people and that’s even more important when managing a diverse remote team.

To conclude, even after the COVID-19 pandemic has passed, in today's increasingly technological world, having working remotely with colleagues all over the world will become more and more common.  Making sure you can successfully manage and motivate a remote team will be the key to success for businesses in the years to come.