Managing Remote Teams: How to Meet the Challenges

Managing Remote Teams

Managing remote teams is an under-researched topic. There is still too little understanding of the techniques that make a virtual team effective. Yet, virtual project teams with remote members are becoming ever more familiar. From June 2020, they will feature in the new PMI Project Management Practitioner Exam.

In part, this is surprising. We have been working in remote teams for 50 years and should have a strong body of knowledge. But, set that against millennia of working with teams that are tightly co-located, and you can see the issue.

By the way… How do I know that managing remote teams is still poorly understood? First, because there are few books on the topic, and fewer still with much useful content. And also because, when you type something like:

  • remote teams,
  • managing virtual teams,
  • managing remote project teams, or
  • virtual project teams

…into your search engine, what do you get?

List articles. Almost every article your search finds is a ‘listicle’. There’s nothing wrong with these articles. But it does portray a simple fact… Few authors have a clear idea for how to structure a coherent model of remote team management.

The Challenges of Managing Remote Teams

Managing Remote Teams

So, I want to do something different… More useful, I hope.

In this article, I want to set out what I think are the seven biggest challenges for managing remote teams. And then, for each challenge, I will offer suggestions for how you can manage your virtual project team effectively.

I will allocate a section to each of my seven challenges of managing remote teams are:

  1. Trust
  2. Understanding
  3. Connection
  4. Responsibility
  5. Productivity
  6. Challenge
  7. Development

The Role of Technology in Managing Remote Project Teams

In addition, I’ll add a final section that looks at the challenges that technology can help you solve. However, what I shall not do is recommend specific applications and tech solutions. But you are welcome to describe the benefits of the tools you have used successfully, in the comments at the end. Vendors too, can leave a short summary of their products and a link.

But First… What are Virtual, or Remote Teams?

I’m going to use the terms ‘Remote Team’ and Virtual Team’ as two terms for the same thing. And that is any team that is geographically dispersed. This includes teams that are:

  • Spread around the world
  • In different towns
  • In different offices
  • Working, in part, from home

All of these situations share the common challenge that the team is not in the same place at the same time. And, it is also, to different degrees, hard to arrange for that to happen.

1. Trust

Humans have evolved to work together in small, close-knit groups, often based around family relationships. These allow for slow and deep relationships to form, that are the basis of common understanding and mutual trust.

Remote teams offer precisely the opposite of this, so the biggest challenge is ‘how can you build a culture of mutual trust?’

Trust as a Leadership Style

And trusting your remote colleagues should be your primary leadership style. It’s easy to get into the default mode of thinking that people need to earn your trust before you can give it to them. But most people would have no intention of letting you down. So, the best approach to creating an environment of trust is to act ‘as if’. That is, start from the presumption that everyone will fulfill their promises.

Gradually Winning Trust from your Virtual Team

A pre-requisite for leading a virtual team is that they trust you and your leadership. There are two small things you can do, systematically, to build that trust.

The first is to role model respectful and trusting behavior. In particular, find out about them, their preferences, and their cultural norms (more about that in the second challenge). Then be sure to respect their norms and preferences. Do this not only in your personal interactions with them, but crystallize this in the processes, systems, procedures, and operating cycles you set up.

The second is to set up and celebrate small wins. Create opportunities for people to succeed, so they can have confidence in the process and in your leadership.

Swift Trust

A valuable concept for you is that of ‘Swift Trust’. It was first articulated by Debra Meyerson, Karl Weick, and Roderick Kramer in the cross-disciplinary review book, ‘Trust in Organizations’ (US|UK), edited by Kramer and Tom Tyler.  They discussed what happens when teams come together rapidly and need to work together effectively without the time it normally takes us to build trust.

Meyerson, Weick, and Kramer argued that, in some circumstances, we can build trust quickly.  They suggest these six conditions. We each:

  1. Presume that each other team member has earned their place 
  2. Trust other people’s expertise and knowledge 
  3. Create and pursue shared goals and a shared scheme for recognition and reward 
  4. Accept a clear role for ourselves and others 
  5. Focus on tasks and actions at the outset (rather than who is doing what, or power and authority)
  6. Take responsibility for our work and respond to requests for help

So, Swift Trust emerges when we are willing to suspend our doubts and concerns about colleagues we don’t know. Instead, we all just get on with our part in a shared task.  Our initial focus on our goals, our roles, and the project deadlines we are under.

When you are managing remote teams, you can help build Swift Trust in seven ways:

  1. Create a great first impression at the outset – this will have a big influence on your team
  2. Build relationships with each individual and learn about them
  3. Deal quickly and constructively with concerns and issues as they arise
  4. Create a feeling that you are present, even when you are geographically distant from people
  5. Encourage frequent team communication
  6. Use private methods (rather than public forums) to deal with under-performance
  7. Recognize and celebrate achievements often

2. Understanding

A vital part of your role in leading a virtual team is helping everyone to understand one-another’s cultures, expectations, and norms of behavior.

Start by personally get to know all your people as individuals. This is, of course, no different to any other team. Indeed, it is the first of my Four Essentials of Project Team Leadership.

Understanding Cultural Norms of Virtual Team Members

A great way to build team coherence that will help you to manage your remote team is to get everyone together – ideally in the same place at the same time. Even if you can only do this occasionally, it can have a huge and positive effect on relationships and task performance.

If you can do this early, use it as an opportunity for sharing cultural norms. As always, the secret is to ask questions and listen well. So try to create an environment where everyone can share their perspectives and be heard respectfully. Encourage respectful curiosity about people’s lives and cultures. But also make it acceptable for people to decline to answer if they do not think it pertinent to the team’s functioning and do not feel comfortable responding.

Personal disclosure (subject to cultural norms) is a powerful way to build relationships and develop a sense of intimacy (and therefore, trust).

Above all, as project team leader, you must role-model cultural sensitivity.

Do take a look at our earlier article on ‘What does Cross-Cultural Leadership Mean for Project Managers?’ This is a guest article, by cross-cultural team-working expert, Samad Aidane.

Diversity is a Gift

All of the research I have ever read about or heard of suggests that, when harnessed properly, greater diversity leads to:

  • Faster evaluation of issues
  • Better problem solving
  • More robust decisions

So, explore and make use of the diversity you have – it’s a gift as well as a challenge.

When to Communicate with Remote Team Colleagues

Virtual teams can often struggle with work-life balance. As some team members are getting started on today’s work, their colleagues may be at home with their families. And it can be easy to forget that your urgent question is upsetting the social and rest time of a colleague.

Set boundaries on when it is okay – and not okay – to communicate across time zones. Make sure everyone understands each other’s time zones, culture, and personal circumstances. If you think you will need ‘out-of-hours’ communication, set rules carefully, and allow local teams to establish a rota amongst themselves.

Conflict is Often A Consequence of Poor Understanding

It’s worth noting that, like all societies, diversity and separation into sub-groups can lead to tribal behaviors and conflict. The two primary things you can do to counter this are;

  1. Foster a sense that the one big, project-wide team is the primary allegiance team members have
  2. Create as many opportunities for people to get to know one another. This not only builds understanding: we tend to like better the people we know better!

3. Connection

Thinking about opportunities for people to get to know one another, we turn to communication. It’s purpose here is making sure we are all accessible to one-another. So, here’s another responsibility for you. You must take the lead in making efforts to communicate well.

Personally, you need to engage with your team frequently. Those who work in the same building as you will see you often. So, you need to use technology to engage just as much with those who are on the other side of the planet. It is all too easy to create a two-tier structure to your team:

  1. those who are near you, and
  2. the others, who are far away

This is the cardinal sin of remote teams. One of the most valuable ways to boost frequent virtual comunication is in-person visits. If your budget allows, you should aim to:

  • Bring remote team members to your hub
  • Personally visit members of your virtual team

Regular and Frequent Communication assists in Managing Remote Teams

So, establish a regular communication cycle. And make it frequent – but not intrusive.

Communication can be difficult; especially when people are communicating:

  • over long distances
  • at the ends of their working day
  • in a language that is not their first language

So ‘little and often’ can be a god guide. Weekly short meetings may seem less efficient than fortnightly longer meetings. But they may not be as effective.

And think of this n terms of both team and individual communication. Team conference calls are great, but are no substitute, for relationship-building, for regular one-on-one conversations. And not just for you. Encourage person-to-person calls between colleagues as a regular part of working. Otherwise, tools like Yammer, Slack, and email will start to dominate. And that will be to the detriment of personal relationships and understanding.

Considerations for Virtual Team Communication

When you schedule team communication across multiple time zones, be sensitive to the time of day for different team members. If you cannot avoid unsocial hours for some team members, try to rotate the burden, and consider offering alternatives, such as:

  • Recording the session for catch-up by people who cannot attend
  • Having two calls at different times

Also make use of the many opportunities for multiple channels of communication. But note that face-to-face is the gold-standard for human communication. for that reason:

  • all hands get together beats
  • video conferencing, beats
  • audio-only teleconferencing, beats
  • text-based messaging

And, let’s remember that ’email is the worst form of communication devised by humans, bar none’.

Which kind of reminds me…

  1. Always test the technology before a meeting, and get it fired up in good time
  2. You should always have fall-back options for when technology lets you down.

Recognition and Rewards

Recognizing contributions and rewarding successful endeavor are valuable ways to create a team ritual where everyone can celebrate team success. Look for ways that you can make this work, and keep it light-hearted. Where possible, aim to make sure that, over a period, every part of your team gets some form of recognition.

The Value of Structured Virtual Team Meetings

Managing a remote team via virtual meetings can be a challenge. You have to contend with:

  • the technology
  • different styles and cultural norms
  • speakers with different first languages, accents, and turns of phrase
  • the uncomfortableness of the technology, at least at the start of the project

Keep meetings your formal meetings as short as you can – ideally to 30 minutes or less. But encourage informal chat time at either end – have some informal conversations at the start and end of formal meetings. To make the structured part go well, circulate key points, an agenda, and the names of participants in advance.

Handling Conflict in Your Virtual Team

Be on the alert for conflict. Pay attention to clues in written and spoken communication. But, most importantly, speak with each person and take their temperature. Find out if there are any issues that are bothering them. If so, ask if the need your help to resolve them.

4. Responsibility

This challenge is about how to create accountability, responsibility, and an appropriate balance of managerial control and team-member autonomy.

So, start by being clear about the purpose of your project. Work on developing your team’s full understanding not just of what they need to do, but why they are doing it. Part of leading any team is articulating a compelling vision for what you are asking people to do.

Informal Structures for Managing Remote Teams

Perhaps the best definition of a team is that in ‘The Wisdom of Teams’ by Jon Katzenbach and Douglas Smith (US|UK).

A team is ‘a small number of people with complementary skills who are committed to a common purpose, performance goals, and approach for which they hold themselves mutually accountable.

‘The Wisdom of Teams’ by Jon Katzenbach and Douglas Smith, Harvard Business Review Press.

The point I’d emphasize here is that they hold each other accountable for their common purpose. This is far more powerful than for you, as the team leader, to hold everyone accountable to yourself. Especially in the case of:

  • one member of a remote part of your team being held accountable by their local colleagues
  • one remote sub-team being held accountable by all the other sub-teams

Where possible, follow the famliar dictum to ‘Recruit for attitude; train for skills’ . That is, if you can, hire people with high levels of self-motivation.

Formal Structures for Managing Remote Teams

I am a big fam of making progress (and slippage) as visible as possible. I love dashboards, but better still are large team whiteboards in every location – kept up-to-date and co-ordinated by team members. There is a visceral power to a big board that someone updates each day.

I also recommend a regular cycle of progress meetings. This could appear as a solution to many of the challenges of working in virtual teams – like communication or productivity. But it fits well here. I do recommend you set up regular cycles of formal and informal progress reporting. These help build an understanding of the project and of each other. But crucially, they help encourage a sense of personal responsibility and the recognition that team members will hold each other to account.

Finally, nothing helps people feel responsible for their work, more than seeing how it fits into a big picture. This is possibly the hardest recommendation to implement, so it’s rare on projects. But, for long-term projects, consider whether you are able to carry out some form of geographical exchange or job rotation.

5. Productivity

Perhaps the core challenge is finding ways that we can work together effectively and productively, despite or even because of our geographic separation and cultural differences.

For this, the answer has to be in well-formed systems and processes. Some cultures are more or less comfortable with this kind of structure and detailed planning – as are some people. But, let’s not forget that we are talking about project management here. This goes with the territory of working on a project. I am also a big fan of templates and checklists. Check-out our own Project Management Template Kit, Project Checklists Kit, and Productivity Bundle with both kits at a special price.

Clarity of Expectations

As with all projects, clarity of responsibilities and over the specifications of deliverables are vital. But they are doubly-so when distance confuses communication, and double again where that distance goes with differences in preferred language and cultural expectations.

Vitally, this includes quality. Be sure to be certain that team members all understand the quality standards the project is working to.

And also set clear expectations about the basics of day-to-day work. For example, on things such as:

  • Working hours
  • Availability and private time
  • Communication frequency
  • Attendance at meetings – present and remote
  • Role responsibilities
  • Key project deadlines
  • Responding to communication like email, Slack, text messages, or voice mail.

Fairness when Managing Remote Teams

Use time zones fairly when allocating work. They present both a challenge and an opportunity. Overlapping time zones and hand-overs. I like the idea of having time-zone clocks for each geographical sub-team in each workplace, but this may not be something you can do (or afford).

And, where you can, rotate team members and team roles so that people get opportunities to learn, and the less appealing work is shared out (as is the best work).

6. Challenge

The last challenge in managing remote teams is… Challenge. That is, that we fail to adequately challenge one-another’s thinking, because the distance and cultural differences make it even more uncomfortable or difficult than usual.

Ideas and decisions that go unchallenged can lead to disaster.

Indeed, challenging another person’s thinking is counter to some cultural norms… This can be especially so when there is a difference in seniority, power, or technical expertise. So, you’ll need to find some mechanisms to overcome this, for the good of effective problem-solving and robust decision-making.

Techniques to Encourage Challenge within a Virtual Team

I have three tips:

1. Leader-role

My first and most important tip is to avoid the team leader or decision-maker stating their position up front. They should encourage team members to debate options, without giving away where they are minded to go. This has two benefits:

  1. First (and not linked to the remote nature of the team), if you remain quiet and listen to various opinions, you are more likely to form an objective oinion. If you state your position early, you may find it hard to change your mind, despite the quality of the reasoning you hear.
  2. Second, by not giving your position away, you can hear genuine challenge and debate among among peers. Team members won’t succumb to the temptation to play to your favor, because they won’t know what play to make.

2. Make it Routine

Make challenge and debate part of your regular cycle of meetings, so people get comfortable with challenge.

3. Systematize Challenge

Adopt formal roles and processes to make systematic challenge easy. For example, appoint one or more team members into a contrarian role at the start of a meeting. Make it their responsibility to argue against any option or proposal for decision.

Or pause any discussion before making a decision, and ask everyone to look for flaws, weaknesses, and risks. Develop them and compel people to argue against the decision you are about to make. Only if it survives these challenges can you be confident it is robust. If not, test other options, in the same way, to find the one that best survives the challenge. , red-team, 6TH – BH thinking

The final technique is to set up a ‘red team’ to review recommendations of any sub-team that proposes an option with significant consequences if it fails. Make it their task to identify and test every assumption and element of reasoning. That way, you can assess the rigor of the original work. Knowing there will be a red team review will also put any work-team on its mettle.

Development

The last challenge is helping team members develop their skills even when you cannot be with them. And once again, the key is to adapt as much as possible from the more familiar, co-located environment. Quite simply: be available. Treat people who are distant as if they are local.

This means making it a priority for yourself. And that can be hard, amongst all your other priorities. I think this points us to the biggest lesson of all, about leading and managing remote teams:

The biggest lesson of leading and managing remote teams is that you need to allocate a larger proportion of your time to your team.

The consequence of this, of course, is the need to delegate more of your other project management and leadership roles to other members of your team.

Three Development Priorities

For me, the three development priorities are:

  1. Periodic reviews and good quality feedback
  2. Coaching and Mentoring
  3. Being prepared to tackle tough issues with integrity. Be open and honest, but do so in a way that is respectful of each individual’s cultural expectations.

Technology to Support Remote Team Management

If you are managing a remote team on an important project, it will pay well, to invest in good quality technology to support you. And, don’t forget… technology is useless unless people can use it properly and easily. So be sure to set-aside the time and budget to ensure that everyone can get the training they need.

I am no expert in this topic, but a good ‘virtual team environment’ can give you much of what you will need, packaged into a single application, or a suite of complementary tools. For managing remote teams, I’d suggest you have tools that can handle some or all of:

  • informal chat
  • formal communication
  • video communication
  • screen-sharing and virtual whiteboards
  • work allocation and progress monitoring
  • project progress monitoring and dashboards
  • deliverable or product tracking
  • quality review and deliverable sign-off
  • risk tracking and dashboards
  • file storage and accessibility – note the importance of good discipline here
  • file tracking and version control, and file archiving
  • shared calendars
  • dashboard timezone clocks

What is Your Experience of Managing Remote Teams?

I’d love to hear from you about your own experience of virtual teams and remote team management. What has worked for you and, equally, what would you recommend readers to avoid? As always, I’ll respond to any comments you leave below.

Learn More

The Best Web Articles on Remote Teams

As I said at the start of this article, there are a lot of list-type articles about managing virtual teams. They are easy to consume – and often contain one or two nuggets. But they are rarely thought-provoking and never offer a systematic approach to improving your leadership of a virtual team.

However, there are some good ones that I have found, which I am happy to share with you:

Much of the Craft of Leading Virtual Teams is the same…

So, you may enjoy some of our earlier articles on leadership in a project environment:

About the Author Mike Clayton

Dr Mike Clayton is one of the most successful and in-demand project management trainers in the UK. He is author of 13 best-selling books, including four about project management. He is also a prolific blogger and contributor to ProjectManager.com and Project, the journal of the Association for Project Management. Between 1990 and 2002, Mike was a successful project manager, leading large project teams and delivering complex projects. In 2016, Mike launched OnlinePMCourses.

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