What inspired this title was a conversation with a friend only a week ago. She, an international manager, provocatively asked me what a deep sea diver and a virtual team leader had in common and immediately offered the answer “both work in the dark”.
This was followed by an agitated description of the day’s telephone conference with her remote team. “It’s the same thing every time. I give them an update of where we stand, throw out a question to these six very experienced and competent managers and you know what? Nothing. No reaction from any of them. At last one of them speaks up and proposes a small idea. It feels like talking to a black hole. I have no idea what is going on at the other end. Sometimes I wonder whether they are still connected. Or maybe they’re on their computers at the same time. Or something else.”
Welcome to the realities of operating within global and matrix organizations!
Remote team work means trying to get results with a group of people you might never have met in person. Your only impressions of them are video-images with ghost-like complexions. You exchange emails in a language that is nobody’s native tongue; struggle constantly with your own biorhythms to stay awake for the late night or early morning web-conferences and telephone meetings that fall into someone else’s lunch time; and you quickly find out that humor does not help since jokes travel badly!
Technology has brought together geographically dispersed team members come together. And along with that it has brought a new set of challenges in how to build trust, communicate effectively, co-produce and motivate people over distance. Only 10% of problems in remote teams have to do with how to use the technology. The other 90% of the problems have to do with people.
And so you clearly cannot manage remote multi-cultural teams and projects the way you manage co-located teams. Not only do you have to be an excellent project leader, you also need a sort of emotional intelligence that is adapted to the virtual world. A virtual intelligence, maybe? But seriously, how can anyone successfully manage remote or virtual teams?
In talking to remote team leaders, I’ve actually found out a few things.
1. First you need to build trust
Building trust starts by investing time in relationships. Use this time to establish individual contracts with each member in order to get their commitment to the team. Find out what your culturally different team members expect from you as a leader. It’s likely to vary. Then you can develop a kind of “contract” with the team concerning how you’re going to work together.
2. Work TOGETHER
Turn yourself into a “super-facilitator” when you go Virtual. After all, the very reason for having a remote team in the first place is pulling in experts from across the organization, countries and sites. So forget about having to do it all on your own and get their input and contributions. Once you’ve got the trust starting to build, three things will help you here: be very clear in how you communicate; develop an “inquiry” mind-set for yourself and encourage it in the others in order to build on each other’s ideas. And learn how to use the full range of communications technologies, including video conferences, web-conferences and webinars that allow you get some faces on the line.
3. Put some flesh on the bones
Remote teams suffer from not being co-located. They never “see” their team-members and are not “seen” as a team by their colleagues in their office. Out of sight, out of mind! So much for motivation and engagement! So bring the team back to everybody’s “front of mind”. Work on the emotional dimension. Encourage the “special message”, with a slogan, to remind distant team members, “we are a team, in this together.” Post photos, illustrations, even a few cartoons (if you’ve tested them beforehand). Get people to express themselves beyond the technicalities of the project.
4. Accept uncertainty
Uncertainty is part of life in many teams, virtual or not. But the degree of ambiguity is far higher when you cannot follow up and see with your own eyes what is going on elsewhere. More unanswered questions pop up when you’re not fully aware of local constraints and you still have to make decisions! So use your analytical skills as well as you feelings. Ask the questions that will allow you to evaluate risks. And accept that you just do not control as much as you might like.
5. Develop a sixth sense and “see in the dark”
Yes, you do need to develop the capacity to pick up small signals that tell you whether your team member is still engaged or on the brink of utter de-motivation. Listen for silence in telephone conversations; note changes in tone, in style and length of emails. Be aware of cultural and language differences when holding a phone conference. You may have to get back to some team members one-on-one—even over the wire—to help them express real needs, expectations and disappointments.
Ah, and my friend, the international manager? Well, believe it or not, she did a scuba-diving course and realized that there are deep sea organisms that produce light. And that communication is one of the main reasons for this underwater bioluminescence. Since then, she has done a lot of work to develop her senses when dealing with her virtual team. And she has also become a skilled deep-sea diver.