Friday, August 02, 2013

Remote workforces and the 12 golden questions

I had an interesting conversation with a friend the other day about the difficulties in managing a remote team. That is a team who aren't all located in the same office. Some may be home workers, some may work in different offices.  The main crux of the discussion was around how you turn a group of people into team, garner some emotional connection between them, and to you and your company, and then get the best out of them.

After a few days of gestation and rumination it came to me. The rules are the same as with a local team - you may do different things and the problems may be more difficult to overcome, but the techniques you use are fundamentally the same.

That thinking led me back to Marcus Buckingham's fantastic book "First Break all the Rules". If you manage people and haven't read this book - shame on you. It is a must read.

One of the main arguments in the book revolves around a set of questions you should ask of your staff defined by years of research by Gallup based on the strongest signifiers of a team that is performing well.

If you get good responses to these questions then you probably have a good team.

Now I'm not going to explain the why's and wherefores of these questions, that has been done far better than I ever could in Marcus's book. Buy it and read it.

What I'd like to do is go over each of the questions and look at what you may need to do as a manager of a remote team in order to ensure that you get positive responses to these questions.

I know what is expected of me at work.

Much like you would with a locally grouped team this is as simple, and as difficult as it sounds: keeping in touch, setting targets and boundaries, being available and honest. All those things that a good manager instinctively does.

The only real difference is that it takes more effort to organise those face-to-face chats.

It starts with honesty at the interview: clearly defining the role that's on offer, what's involved and what's not involved. From there it moves to regular catch ups to get a feel for where they think they are, and for you to feed back where they actually are, then finally to ensuring that rewards and praise are given when the expectations are met and exceeded.  Put in the simplest of terms you're regularly telling them what you expect then reinforcing that with action.

For some people this will feel like constant badgering, and for others you'll never be able to do enough, but I don't think there's anything about remote working that makes this fundamentally different to managing local workers.

I have the materials and equipment I need to do my work right.

Every tool you would normally provide in an office you should expect to provide for a remote worker. OK, maybe not the pen and pad, but you could consider corporate branded versions of both. At least it's a reminder of who they work for!

Every bit of software you would normally provide on a desktop needs to be available in their home office. 

Every document that they may need to access on the move should be available on-line   Workers that are expected to spend most their time on client sites should have access to software that is appropriate for onsite work from any device that has internet access.  Ideally they should have offline versions too. I.e. access to versions of their software that works when not connected to the internet, that will automatically sync when the connection is made available.  If you've ever used gmail, blogger or evernote on a disconnected tablet you will know what I mean.

You need to do everything you can to limit the chances that they'll ever be in a situation where they are disconnected from their tools.

At work I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day.

You might hope that this should be easier to achieve with remote workers than it would with a team in a single office.  Working on the move or at home gives people a chance to get on and do some work with out all those pesky distractions like other people.

However, its very easy to underestimate the impact remote working has on ease of communication, and in turn, the amount of time it takes to have those communications.  If you're not careful, those informal 2 minute chats in the kitchen turn into 1000 word project update documents.  You can see how there can be a death off a thousand cuts as layers of bureaucracy are added in order to keep everyone in the loop.

In addition, how can a manager see what a team member is best at when they don't physically witness them doing it.  It's not always easy in the office to spot someone's talents (or areas of difficulty for that matter) and guide them towards utilising them.  It's an order of magnitude harder when you don't spend that vital face to face time with them every day.

Ironically it can be tempting to have people fill in time-sheets and detailed updates in order to help spot the things that are done quickly and well, that are second nature, but then this simply distracts people from what they do best, and not everyone's talent is writing updates!

There's no simple answer to this. It takes a very special manager who can read their employees from a distance and a special kind of employee who is self aware enough to be honest about their strengths and weaknesses.  It starts with the culture of the management team and their all pervasive attitude towards spotting strengths.  They need to make sure that the workforce is constantly aware that this is the approach the management team is taking and that gives employees a strong incentive to be honest.

Part of that is then listening to your staff when they describe areas if difficulties. Sometimes this may highlight personal areas where the talents are lacking, in others it may be that the processes are getting in the way of providing real value. In either case you need to clearly assess the situation and act decisively and positively when needed.

It's vital that everybody is very clear about what they, and their team, do best and that people are allowed to focus on that as much as possible.

In the last 7 days I have received recognition or praise for doing good work.

This one should be simple.  All you have to do is follow the same rules that you normally would in the office: praise publicly or privately depending on the person you're dealing with.

Praise successes at the monthly get together, on the intranet, via mail, a conference call or a chat on the phone whichever is appropriate for the person and level of success.  However, whenever, just don't forget to do it.

Of course, you have to be much more diligent about this since the people you're praising aren't in front if you all the time.  It's harder to spot their frustration and disenchantment when they're not getting the praise they feel they deserve - you can't see their face and their minute by minute attitude.  For this reason I'd suggest that it's probably better to err on the side of too much praise than too little, and maybe even have a reminder in your calendar that pops up every couple of days so you don't forget.

My supervisor, or someone at work, seems to care about me as a person.

The main thing is honesty, and if you can fake that you've got it made...

In all seriousness though, you do actually need to care.  In order to care you need to connect with people. 

You'll spot a repeating theme here, and at the risk of sounding like a broken record, you can only connect with people if you communicate with them, and with a remote workforce that takes a lot of effort.

Whilst this point isn't just about the tough times, if you find someone's having a hard time then you need to break that remoteness, get yourself into their locale and meet up on neutral territory. Show that you care enough about them as a person that you'll take the time to go see them in their local cafĂ©.  Show that its not all one way, that you'll make the effort.

It's about making sure that your team know that it's not all about the work they need to do today, but it's about them as a human-being having a valued place in a team that supports each other.

For some people it will be inappropriate to cross into the personal life, maybe they like working in a remote team because of the fact that its remote. However, it can still be valuable for those people to know that you understand and respect that, rather than simply don't care about them.

Even people who don't want regular catch ups want to be reminded that you know that and you're trying your best to act in line with their desires.

You have to be extremely careful about crossing people's personal boundaries and invading into their personal space.  Be honest with yourself about that, and recognise that not everyone wants their boss to be their best friend and that for most people it would be extremely distressing if you turned up on their doorstep unannounced!

There is someone at work who encourages my development.

When you're working remotely it can sometimes seem like you have nothing other than unrealistic demands, one after the other from a manager who can then veer wildly to forgetting you exist. This is what you need to try to overcome.

There needs to be a tough combination of slack in the schedule, freedom to explore and encouragement to follow new paths.

If your team have no time to do anything other than the day's work then they have no opportunity to develop.
If they have plenty of time, but no contact then they'll feel you don't care about their development.

You need to bring conversations on development to the front and ensure that they're had out loud.
Ensure that you have a process in place to discuss the direction your staff want to move in and ensure that they have the support they need in order to take those steps.  This may involve having decent expenditure on training, on in house resources and applications, it may be as simple as just letting your staff have time to explore.  It certainly includes letting them fail from time to time and not being judgemental about the outcome.

Not all this can be done remotely. It's tough to feel the support of someone that is not physically present, and  as with so many of these points you need to acknowledge that you're going to travel. You absolutely need some face to face time.

It may be that you need to put a central training team together and fly, train or bus people in to get their training.

You should!

It may end up being more expensive than it would have been to have a co-located office and training team, but that's the decision you took when you decided to employ a remote team.

Good quality learning and development software can help, as can access to third-party on-line training catalogues and I imagine that there is a greater return on investment on these tools than there would be in a local office.  However, making courses available to people is not the same as encouraging and supporting them in their development.

Consider mentoring programmes and ensure that you pay the expenses to get people together with their mentors.  Don't just assume that the mentors know what they're doing, put a mentoring team together so that they can support each other, and ensure that you have a training budget to teaching people how to be a mentor.  Don't forget, being a mentor can be a great way to develop the mentor!

If you want your team to think you're serious about their development, you need to get serious about their development.

At work my opinions seem to count

I'd suggest that in order for a new team member to feel their opinions matter they first need to feel that their co-workers' opinions matter.

From that you can then gestate the idea that they are allowed to have opinions, leading to you following through on some of their thoughts and ideas so that they feel their ideas matter.

Simple eh?

At the core of it, as always is the need to communicate. Not just back to the team member with the big idea, or serious concern, but with the whole team.

Regularly asking for feedback and opinions and then acting upon them. Becoming known as the manager that doesn't always assume that they know better.

Technology can help with this.  Open forums with no moderation (unless it's absolutely necessary). Having everyone involved in it, from the CEO to the intern, and a culture of respect around the postings that means every question or idea is addressed with care and thought.

That's not to say that every post is publicly stated as the best idea or most insightful question there has ever been, but that common courtesy and time is given in the response.  Most sane people have no problem being told they're wrong as long as it is clear and respectful and comes with an invitation for more.

There is also the HR angle: that people need to be able to state when they think a co-worker is not up to scratch, behaving inappropriately or suchlike.

Accessibility, openness and a visible commitment to acting on information is the only way to get this feeling fostered.  And guess what, it comes back again to two way communication.

The mission / purpose of my company make me feel my job is important.

OK, so it can seem that there's very little you can do about this, either your company resonates with your employees or it doesn't. The reality is that you can affect this quite significantly.

It's all too easy to recruit without your companies values in mind. And when I say values, I don't mean those in your company brochure, I mean those true values that actually drive the business.

An estate agents is never going to be driven by anything other than selling or letting houses, and that's the way it should be. There are different ways in which you a company may approach that, but the core value is one that selling houses is a good thing, and that you'll make money out of it.

Put simply, if you're an estate agent and you hire someone who thinks that a buoyant housing market, the need for a 'property ladder', low interest rates, and easy access to credit is a bad thing then you've hired someone who will never feel their job is important.

Consider that in your recruitment process.

I'm not saying that you can't , or shouldn't have a business with a mix of opinions, merely that you should honestly recognise the limitations of internal corporate marketing.

Having said that, you do need to market the business internally. You still need to remind people why they are here, and why the company is doing what it's doing. If you don't define the culture of the business then individuals will impose a culture upon it and it may not be the one you want. An outgoing but negative employee can very easily, and often quite unintentionally impose a negative culture on the whole of a department.

As with so many of these topics, communication is the key, more so with a remote workforce than at any other time.

Let the team know what the company feels is important, and make sure you don't stray too far from the credible truth or your employees will start to think you stand for lies.

My co-workers are committed to doing quality work.

There are three significant risks with a remote workforce that can put this into jeopardy.

First - it can be difficult to spot when you have a member of the team that's not committed to quality work.

Second - it can be difficult to sot someone who thinks their team-mates are not committed to quality work.

Third - it can be difficult to ensure that everyone knows what quality work their team-mates are doing.

With many of the other points the focus is on communication in order to feedback on progress both up and down the chain of command. This is much more focused on the sideways communication.

At the simplest level this is about regular cross team updates where you ensure that everyone knows what's going on in the whole team, particularly highlighting points of note.  This directly addresses the third risk, but doesn't deal with the other two.

You need to follow it up by fostering an environment where feedback on peers is taken seriously.  You need to ensure that your team feel comfortable asking about their team mates' progress, or pointing out areas of concern or difficulty.

This involves giving an honest and clear response.

If you feel the comments are unjustified you need to be able to clearly state why, but still then ensure you take the comments on board and react to them. Recognise that they may know more about the situation than you do.  You need to give that dual impression - you value feedback, and that you value your staff - you'll hear criticism and concern and act to rectify issues, but you'll defend and protect when it is unjustified.

I have a good friend at work?

Obviously a collection of remote workers have far fewer chances to socialise than those working together in an office.  They'll never just decide to go to the pub on a Wednesday evening and never naturally make those odd cross department smoking cliques, nor football ones neither - all simply because they're not at the office.  This means they are far less likely to make the same kinds of personal connections than they would otherwise.

The problem and potential solutions are fairly clear but easy to overlook.

You absolutely have to have a higher than usual entertainments budget. You have to meet up at least every month in order for those face to face relationships to blossom. But it's more than that. You have to foster an environment where building remote relationships is also the norm. You have to provide virtual replacements for the Wednesday evening pub and smoker's corner.

For example, your management team must have a relaxed attitude when communicating via mail.  It has to be clear that email system is more than just a business tool, that it can be a social one too. You have to make an effort to build an environment in which social networks will blossom.

Consider tools like Yammer (corporate social networking site) and then push the management to actually use them, for a combination of business and social reasons.

Provide the mechanism to allow for the hosting of virtual book clubs, badminton ladders and a Modern Warfare 3 clan.

Recognise the kinds of people you have employed and ensure that they have a means of accessing people at work who are like minded and then make it feel normal that they will reach out and find each other.

What offices you do have, don't be afraid to add a big chill out area and kitchen so that when people are in the office they get that reinforcement - "this is a company where we actively encourage you to be friends"

In the last six months someone at work has talked to me about my progress.

There is no reason why this should be difficult. Organise regular meetings, on-line or otherwise, to discuss progress. Have a solid process in place that can flex for individual needs.  All the things you would normally do.  Every six months is a bare minimum, every two is OK, once a month is ideal - as a general rule.

I could labour the point, but I think most of what needs to be said has been said already!

This last year I have had opportunities at work to learn and grow.

It can be very tempting to feel that your home workers are sitting at home happy in the knowledge that they're doing a good job and have a great work home life balance. Maybe that's true. Maybe all they want is to get their job done and then play in the garden with their kids.


However, just because they're remote doesn't mean they're not ambitious.  I don't think there's any reason why a home worker will be any less likely than an office one to want to progress, either in their career, or personally.

Also, not every remote worker is a home worker.

Those team members that are sitting at a desk 50 miles away, out of sight, are more able to look for opportunities outside of your company than someone that's sat 5 metres away.  Take their progress as seriously as you would any other staff member's.

Catch up regularly to learn about their goals and then do what you can to help them reach the realistic ones, learn about their career concerns and do what you can to help them overcome them, or to placate them.
Tailor your roles to suit the talents and desires of your team members and make sure you give the ones who need, deserve and are up to it the opportunity to stretch themselves in new directions.

If you don't give your team members the encouragement and opportunity to develop then they'll find the opportunities through a new role in a new company, and just like your local workers, you'll have no idea it's going to happen until it's too late.

So, do more than you think you need to!


Good management is good management, regardless of how local or remote the team is, and good management takes effort.

The truth of the matter is that with a remote workforce that effort is increased.  You need to be more astute, more available and more willing to put the effort in than if your team is sat next to you.  You lose so many of the visual and social clues that a good manager uses every day to gauge the health of its team that you need to compensate in many other areas.  You also have to acknowledge that you're not likely to be as effective, it simply isn't possible.

You need to get imaginative about how you remain in contact, how you foster a team spirit and an emotional connection.  Technology plays a part, of course it does. Good collaboration tools with social media aspects make it possible to create social groups within your company and allow those people to seek out like minded individuals in a way that simply wasn't possible, or necessary, 10 years ago.  However, the technology isn't a panacea. You still need to create an environment in which people actually want to connect.  Without the right cultural context, you'll simply have a dead application
Still, the rules are simple and the techniques familiar.  There's nothing fundamentally different about managing a remote team, you're still dealing with people, after all.

If you honestly care about your role as a manager, a need to create a team that performs and are willing and able to put the time in, then you probably won't go far wrong.


Quincy said...


Rob Baillie said...

Thanks Quincy, glad you appreciate the post!