HR Management, Talent Management

How to Handle the Challenges of Remote Teams

Illustration by istockphoto.com

According to a recent Gallup survey, remote workers actually log more hours at their primary job than do their on­ site counterparts. This gives us a hint that remote workers might actually get more things done than employees back at office.

A similar study conducted by Towers Watson suggests that only 35 percent of the global workforce is actually highly engaged.

Well, this is a staggering number. It is a wonder that companies get any work done.

The big challenge: Mastering communication

Taking these surveys into consideration, it is a bit of a wonder that the CEO of Yahoo demanded that all the employees show up at the office. Looking back, it is clear that this decision was quite controversial by having both fierce advocates and a lot of angry opponents.

No matter what the situation is in global enterprises, every company needs to make their own decisions about remote workers. What does not work for one company might be something that helps another business survive. For a small start­-up, hiring people from different geographical regions might be the only way they can build a killer team.

Although the phenomenon of remote work became more popular with the rise of start-up community, it is also utilized by a lot of established companies as well.

As remote teams gain in popularity in different industries, the big challenge is mastering communications throughout.

Tips for handling the remote team challenge

If the truth be told, this problem does not only hinder remote teams but everyone participating in any kind of team. Leaders and managers know the valuable skill of working cohesively with their teams, but what makes the remote team different is that effective communication is not just recommended, but is a vital key to success.

Without effective communications, you might as well file for bankruptcy right away.

Taking into consideration the experience we have had in Weekdone, being a distributed team ourselves, and analyzing our clients that often have to communicate from different parts of the world, we have come up with the four (4) crucial tips for effective communication.

This isn’t brain surgery, of course, but for some reason these tips get overlooked far too often. Perhaps it might be because different teams are handled similarly, which is a huge mistake. Remote teams are very different by their very nature, and therefore the communication process should be handled differently, too.

So, how do you conquer the remote team communications challenge?

1. Not everyone will be a great remote worker

Start off by hiring the right people. One attractive trap that a lot of team leaders have fallen into is hiring top­ achievers. While this gamble might pay off, it is also crucial to consider whether the successful employee works well due to the conditions that have been provided to them or because of their inner motivation.

For working on a remote team, one needs a tremendous amount of self-­discipline and mountains of motivation. Although working from a remote destination might seem appealing at first, the glamour is quick to fade. Spending hours talking, writing, communicating through the wonders of technology might get difficult over the time.

2. People in London-Tokyo-New York know the damn time zones

It is quite common that a remote team is not just miles apart, but whole countries apart. In this case, the situation gets even tougher, because of all the fuss around different time zones and finding the right time when everybody can communicate online is a nightmare.

So, whether your team members are just few hours apart or an entire work­day ahead, know the time zones.

One troublesome way to cope with it is having different clocks pointing to the exact time in each of your team member’s time zones.  Another, much  easier way,  is to use an online app (like a meeting planner) that will calculate the exact time and date of your chosen destinations.

But the best advice is to remember the time difference and use some third grade mathematics to cope with it.

3. The technology is here to help, not hold us back

On average, a typical worker spends 29 percent of their week in this email box, sending or checking correspondence. Now, if the remote worker uses e­mail as their primary means of communications, it might increase the percentage of time on email to a whopping 60 percent.

When leading or participating in a remote team you cannot waste that much time on such a poor communication tool. Therefore, you should take advantage of the technology that has been provided by the great world wide web.

For everyday meetings and discussions, use Skype. It is the easiest way to stay connected in real time.

For sharing big and lengthy documents, use Google Docs and Dropbox. Be sure to categorize everything logically so you will create a  system rather than a mess.

For  getting  insights into your team, consider a tool like Weekdone that allows your remote team to share their goals, achievements and problems, and can not only enhance productivity and focus, but also keep the team on track.

3. Never underestimate face time – even when working remotely

Start saving right away because a small proportion of your budget should go to travel. And I don’t  mean going sightseeing and exploring new opportunities; I mean traveling to visit your team members.

Getting the whole team around one table might fight the concept of remote working, but it is necessary. This task is quite impossible  for a lot of teams with tight budgets and even tighter time constraints, so you should also consider cheaper alternatives like switching on the camera during your next group call. Even this small change could have a tremendous effect.

All in all, I can say from my experience that working in a remote team is fun. There are some amazing advantages, but like everything else in this world, there are also disadvantages that could develop into stumbling blocks if not addressed.

One of the biggest challenges remote teams face is simply mastering communications. By making just small changes in your everyday workflow, tremendous results could follow.

Finding the people with excellent self­ discipline, adjusting to having co-workers in different time zones, using online tools to help manage, and, actually having some occasional face-­to-­face time, are the founding blocks of a successful distributed team. 

Külli Koort is a fierce proponent of achieving more with less frenetic effort. That’s why she works at Weekdone, a start-up that builds progress report software for managers who wish to gain more insights to their teams. You can connect with her on Twitter.