Teams - Remote and Virtual

by Claire Snowdon and Mark Bouch

How to get started

Technology plays an important role in remote teams, but your focus as team leader, as with any regular team, should be the people and the way they interact. In common with any other team task, whether regarded as a ‘project’ or ‘business as usual’, you, as team leader, will need to

  • Decide what needs to be done (set direction and purpose)
  • Develop networks of people and resources to do it (make a plan and align people around it)
  • Ensure that that the job actually gets done (motivate people and manage team performance).

Six critical activities

In a remote team, six activities related to the team’s way of working will be critical to your success.

1. Set goals, roles and responsibilities

As with any team, it is fundamental to set the purpose and intent then establish clear goals, roles and responsibilities. Ideally, you should do this face to face with a remote team.

With remote teams you should take more time to establish team members’ freedom to operate, clarifying what decisions they can (or are expected to take) and what decisions they need to refer up to you.

2. Establish communication protocols

  • Outline what the team needs to communicate, how it will communicate, who needs the information, when they need it, and what happens if communication breaks down.
  • Establish a meeting structure (a rhythm of business). When are meetings needed, for what purpose, and in what format (face to face, IM chat, telephone conference, NetMeeting, video conference or a combination)? Who will be in control of the meeting? Who is responsible for collating and publishing the outputs?
  • Agree how to provide ad hoc updates to remote team members (important when some of the team is co-located).

3. Establish a fair and efficient workflow

The challenge is to balance workflow so that it is evenly distributed amongst team members. Where a remote team is managing a 24-hour day to take advantage of different time zones, establish how load-sharing will work and the process for critical handovers.

Be prepared to make adjustments as the work or project develops and the situation changes.

4. Decide how the team will make decisions

  • Remote teams need to have explicit discussions about how they make decisions.
  • Be clear and explicit about decision-making authority levels.
  • Encourage collaboration on decision-making to keep the team engaged.
  • Ensure that the appropriate decision-makers are present at meetings.
  • Agree the escalation path when decisions cannot be made, if the prime decision-maker is either unavailable or unable to decide.

5. Agree how the team will resolve conflict

In a regular team, conflict is visible and tangible. In remote teams, it is harder to spot; the risk is that one or more team members brood, unseen, over the outcome. To reduce the impact of conflict, we recommend that you discuss with the team

  • Likely areas for conflict
  • How you will deal with conflict
  • Some rules for avoiding conflict
  • A plan so that team members can easily contact you. When you are unavailable, someone else needs to be nominated to assume a leadership role and have authority to ensure that workflow is not affected when issues are encountered.

6. Engage the team

The level of engagement and productivity in a remote team will reflect the extent to which the team feel that they are genuinely collaborating to produce the desired output, rather than being told what to do, but with an additional burden of geographical dispersion.

  • If at all possible, have a face-to-face meeting when the team is launched, or when a new member joins. Face-to-face meetings help build trust and strengthen relationships within the team.
  • If you cannot meet at a central location, then use video-conferencing to enable members to make a more personal connection with each other when they initially meet. This will hopefully facilitate better communication in the future.
  • If your team is project based, you need to determine how much time members have allocated to your project.
  • Once goals and freedom to operate have been established for each remote team member, set up a regular ‘check-in’ to monitor their progress and exchange feedback.
  • Keep everyone informed of the work flow. It is important that this includes their own accountabilities, what other team members are responsible for and how their work affects others.
  • Prepare carefully for meetings so that they remain easy to manage. Use a simple tool, such as POST (Purpose – the reason for this meeting, Outcome – the outcome required from the meeting, Structure – how/with what technology the meeting will be held, Timing – how long it will last), to set up and manage productive meetings that deliver the required output, whether it be brainstorming, discussion, work production, information exchange or decision-making.

Taking over an existing VRW team

If you find yourself taking over an existing remote team, the biggest challenge is to lead effectively without disrupting team output. It may be that you, as the leader, need to adjust your style to the needs of the team and individual team members, especially if they are experienced as remote workers and you are not.

Having established what the team is planning to achieve and why it is important (their intent), you should get to know your team. If you can’t see them face to face, pick up the phone and introduce yourself. Let them know what you will be expecting of them and ask for their input.