A long time ago, before the days of videoconferencing, the Internet and email, teams generally needed to be in the same physical location in order to work effectively. But those days are long gone. Various studies in the US are showing that somewhere between 43% (New York Times 2017) and 52% (Harvard Business Review 2017) of people spent some time in the last year working remotely.
To be precise, a dispersed team is one in which a manager and their direct reports do not work in the same physical location for a significant period of time. It could be:
- In an office that is in a different location but part of the same organisation.
- In an office that is in a different location and part of another organisation.
- In the field.
- From home.
For some people it’s a choice whereas for others it’s a necessity of doing business today. While the benefits of dispersed teams are enormous and there are many positive examples of it working well, in reality it’s not without its challenges for leaders and teams.
Based on our research and from personal experience, we have divided the most common challenges under three headings … Communicating Virtually, Leading Geographically Dispersed Teams and Building Remote Teams. See below.
- A lack of face-to-face time means it can take longer for people to understand each other and build a quality relationship.
- Misunderstandings and misconceptions can occur through remote communication and a lack of visual cues.
- Difficulty in explaining complex problems remotely.
- Dealing with conflict over the phone or via email and sensing that the matter is resolved (or is it?).
- People chairing conference calls that don’t know how to manage remote group dynamics.
- Remote one-on-one’s with line managers can feel especially transactional.
- A lack of face-to-face interaction causing people to over compensate in written form, resulting in way more emails.
Leading Geographical Dispersed Individuals
- Leaders not 100% trusting what their people are doing, people sensing this from their leader, all of which creates a slightly neurotic culture of over-reporting, people feeling the need to explain (and defend) what they’re doing and when and in some cases working longer hours than usual.
- Leaders adopting more of a laissez-faire leadership style with remote individuals (out of sight, out of mind); in essence, leaving them alone, rather than taking on a more transformational leadership approach.
- Leaders not always seeing people in action, creating missed opportunities for coaching and feedback (positive or developmental) in the moment.
- Leaders not having the total picture when it comes to the wellbeing (and working hours) of remote employees.
- Leaders only getting ‘half-the-story’ in relation to team member performance issues.
- Leaders assigning a greater workload to those in the same office compared to those working remotely.
- Remote individuals leaning on other leaders located in the same office for advice and direction rather than their immediate line manager in a different office.
Building Remote Teams
- Everyone’s everywhere, creating a lack of group cohesiveness, continuity and momentum.
- Moving through Tuckman’s team model of forming, storming, norming and performing can take much longer in a remote team.
- Remote collaboration, problem solving and creative thinking can take more effort.
- A lack of access/responsiveness, i.e. people just can’t pop into someone’s office for a 2-minute chat or an immediate request for assistance might take all day before a response is forthcoming.
- Team behaviours in virtual meetings, i.e. team members are more polite and passive in a virtual conversation and in some cases the leader needs to follow-up after the meeting to check-in on the team for the things that were not said.
- Friday drinks or team celebrations just aren’t the same on a teleconference.
- Leaders that encourage their team to work from home but in truth more senior managers are still not comfortable with the idea and question the leader on what everyone is doing.
While this list of challenges above do not provide us with a clear roadmap on how to lead remote teams, it’s a great place to start. These challenges shine a spotlight on the most common risks or limitations to working remotely so that leaders and organisations can evaluate what’s working and not working so well.
From here, leaders and organisations can then decide the best plan of attack. In some cases, the answer is policy, in other cases it’s process. In our experience it also comes down to the capability of leaders and teams to work together apart.
All the best with your own internal audit on Leading Remote Teams.
This blog is an extract for our upcoming eBook – Leading Remote Teams. You can pre-register here and get your copy on launch day.