You’re an experienced manager and have been shepherding your in-office team along effectively for years. And then things shift, you change roles or jobs, or a new project comes along and suddenly the people you work with are scattered across the continent (or the world). Does all your old management wisdom apply? Will you have to learn any new tricks?
To find out, we spoke with Yosh Beier, the co-founder of Collaborative Coaching, which specializes in encouraging productive collaboration among teams. He has extensive international experience assisting both local teams and teams of web workers, so we asked him what makes a great manager of a dispersed team. He offered six practices that are particularly important for those leading distributed teams:
- How vs. what. You’re busy – everyone is – so you skimp on talking about how you’ll work together in favor of focusing on what you need to deliver. An understandable decision, but a mistake, particularly for remote teams, says Beier. “When the rubber hits the road, which invariably it will at some stage, this really impedes the effectiveness of a team. The fact that teams are dispersed adds complexity because it is even harder to build trust and give people feedback.” So find the time to speak with your team about those all-important “how” questions: How are we making decisions? How do we give each other feedback? How do we want to deal with conflict and how do we want to bring it up?
- Bring out your inner Dirt Devil. If there’s dirt being swept under the rug, you have to get it out in the open. “If teams are dispersed it’s so much easier to avoid the kind of constructive conflict that should happen,” Beier noted. “It’s really the job of a team leader to be super finely attuned to the possibility that there is conflict that’s swept under the rug and then really make sure that it is being unearthed.”
- Build an operating manual for cultural difference. Remote teams, by their nature, are more likely to be cross-cultural. Don’t stick your head in the sand and hope for the best. Instead Beier suggests “cultural introductions” where you explicitly bring your team together to talk about questions like, “where did you grow up?” and “what do I need to work well in a team?” Beier explains: “We say, if you could give co-workers an operating instruction manual about you, what would you say? Then people have a chance to say, ‘I like it this way. I like it that way. I like feedback clearly or not publicly,’ depending on what kind of cultural preferences people have. There is a chance up front to be clear about the different expectations that people have if they have different backgrounds. People have a chance to see the person and not just the role. It tends to give people the trust, when the going gets tougher, to say, hey wait a second, something is really not working for me.”
- Be ambidextrous. No, you don’t need to write with both hands, but you do need the flexibility to balance tasks and team building. “Realize what markers tell you to be more task oriented, for instance if you already have performance measurements and you’re falling behind. But also what indicators tell you to be a little more relationship focused, for instance, if there’s a reluctance to give critical feedback. The trick is team leaders who are flexible enough to do both.”
- Fend off the “kumbaya” charge. Does this all sound a little touchy-feely to you? Some team members are likely to agree, so Beier recommends framing all this sharing in hard-nosed business language. “Make clear what the purpose is. It is really important for people to understand we’re not just there to say kumbaya at the end of the day. We’re there to get our job done in a way that is more effective and possibly also more creative.”
- The virtual open door. You don’t have a traditional office so you don’t have a door, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have a virtual open door policy. “Being very approachable as a team leader is hugely important,” says Beier. “Reiterate that message over and over again, particularly at the beginning: I am approachable by phone, by email, by whatever way people prefer.”
What were the toughest challenges for you when you first started managing web workers?