24 May, 2017

How to lead a remote workforce

We’ve talked about the benefits of a remote workforce and how using a virtual address with the Hoxton Mix can free you from high overheads and associated costs. For many (but not all) businesses there’s a strong argument for a distributed workforce. However, with the physical separation of team members, different challenges can arise, not least of which is how you lead your team when you don’t see them often or even at all face-to-face.

Obviously with the rise of reliable technology and highly developed work tools, more and more employees are working from home offices, coffee shops and co-working spaces. And there seems to be a growing expectation that over the next few years many more employees will work remotely. This can be great for employees as it creates an increased flexibility and saves time and energy but new challenges arise for those in the leadership role. For instance, researchers from Brigham Young University found that we naturally lean towards leaders we are physically near and see face-to-face.

So how do we resolve the issue that we naturally feel more inclined to recognise authority from the leaders we see face to face? How do we negotiate the potential pitfalls of power struggles and mis-communication that might be caused by separation?

Communication is key

Often, within a distributed workforce there’s a tendency for people to be left to get on with their own thing. A sort of “out of sight, out of mind” attitude can emerge. Particularly from managers who already have a lot of demands on their time. But the opposite should be true. Clear outcomes and deadlines should be set more frequently with more “check-ins” to see how progress is going. On top of this there should be more of an open-door policy held by managers so that employees can feel able to ask important questions and not let work be held up by lack of communication.

This is why we think the Agile approach to project management can work really well with remote teams. The expectation is that there will be more frequent but much shorter meetings where clearly defined outcomes and timeframes will be agreed that each person will take responsibility for. There are plenty of remote working tools that we’ve mentioned in the past, some of our favourite are Telegram and Slack, Skype or Google hangouts, as well as collaborative real-time documents such as can be found in Google docs. We all know the feelings of anxiety that can creep in when we feel out of the loop and not know what’s going on within a team. Don’t let your team end up experiencing this just because you haven’t taken the time to be in communication. And don’t forget, a simple phone call can often be the simplest solution.

Don’t allow power struggles to escalate

We’ve already learnt that workers are more likely to respect the authority of someone they work face to face with rather than remotely. So when you have a team where the leader is remote it will be more difficult for the team to respect that person’s authority. You must find a way to create a “presence” even when you are not there and when issues of authority arise you must deal with them.

  • Address the problem don’t ignore it and hope it will sort itself out – almost always it won’t.
  • Listen to the concerns, objections and ideas of everyone involved. Not everyone’s opinion is necessarily right in a given situation. But everyone in your team needs to be heard and valued.
  • Involve the relevant team members in the resolution process.
  • Consider finding a way to do the resolution face to face or at least via video conference.
  • Help the team understand your reasoning and don’t just pull rank (although there maybe sometimes you simply need to do this, in the majority you need your team onside and not just doing as they are told).

Keep everything in order

With a disparate workforce it’s even more important that conversations, agreements and project status are clearly maintained within well organised frameworks so that any person can easily refer to previous agreements and understand what stage a project is at, at a glance.

You must make sure that your team all use the same tool and engage with it. Even if they “prefer to use email”, email is at best a semi private conversation channel. Suddenly answering part of a group conversation in a private email will mean inconsistent understanding from the rest of the team. Project conversations generally need to be had within context and in a space where all relevant team members can see the status and progress.

We use tools such as JIRA or Trello for creating Agile sprints and it’s important that product development actions are done in the form of a ticket and questions are always applied to a ticket. This means that new people to the team can be easily onboarded and quickly pick up where someone else left off. For general conversation we use Slack as you can create “channels” for specific conversations, always searchable and maintained in a thread format.

It’s important also to be clear on who’s responsible for what and maintain that hierarchy or structure until some other clear agreement is made.

Be consistent

You will gain much more respect as a leader if you lead by example and the best way to get sustainable consistency from your people is to be consistent yourself:

  • Check in when you say you will.
  • Don’t miss meetings but turn up when you say you will. (There’s a tendency amongst some leaders to pretend that meetings are beneath them as they have more important things to do. If you genuinely have better things to do and not enough time for it all, don’t agree to meet. Otherwise show that you take your commitments seriously or your team won’t either.)
  • Respond to requests in good time and return communication if your team are engaging with you.

There are plenty of other things you could do, but being consistent and producing your defined outcomes will show that you don’t think that working remotely is a soft touch.

Don’t stop meeting together

Finally, and this could be one of the most important things of all, don’t completely stop meeting face to face. Even if it is as little as once or twice a year. At The Hoxton Mix we use various remote 3rd party teams and the ones we find easiest to get on with are the ones that we have a sense of “knowing” through face to face meetings. For instance, the project manager for one of the development teams we use based in Hungary makes annual trips to see his clients in person. It’s remarkable the lasting impression this can leave by sitting face to face for just a couple of hours a year. 

For those with a team of people however, we’d suggest making it a day or two. Why not have an annual team gathering that involves fun activity, food and drink as well as some sort of training. If you experiment with this, let us know what works best for you.

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