Leading From Afar: Rules For Managing Remote Teams

 

“The mountains are high and the emperor is far away.”   - Chinese Proverb
山高皇帝远

 

As markets become more integrated and business becomes more global, organizations increasingly find themselves spread out over multiple locations, leaving managers wondering how to effectively lead teams from afar.  Given the natural tendency humans have to engage with what’s in front of them and ignore that which is not, this can be tough.

My own professional background is full of these dispersed teams – my first real cross-border experience was in managing a team in Kazakhstan from my office Moscow, 3000 kilometers away.   Like many global executives, at one time or another I’ve found myself responsible for direct reports in places I couldn’t even find on a map.  What I’ve learned is that wherever the teams are located, whatever the structure of the organization, and whichever industry the business is in, there are a number of commonalities.  More specifically, there are 9 factors that tend to complicate things, 3 common problems that arise and 4 rulesfor managing the teams.   That may sound like a lot, so feel free to skip around to the parts that interest you.

 

9 Factors That Complicate The Situation

Most geographically dispersed teams are organized as a central group (where the boss sits) with one or more satellite entities.  Configuration, culture and leadership style matter a lot – some factors naturally generate problems that are amplified by the distance and complexity inherent in an organization spread among several sites.  Generally speaking:

1.        More satellites = more problems.  This is the result of the greater complexity that comes with more moving parts.  This is often a particular issue for businesses that start off with a strong local focus (like law firms and agribusinesses) and then find their reach expanding as they follow customers into new markets.  Suddenly, the systems that worked so well when everyone sat under one roof break down and start causing unexpected problems in far-flung places.

2.        Bigger satellites = more problems.  A hierarchical system where the central group (head office) is clearly dominant is far easier to manage than one where the subsidiaries are the same size or bigger.  When satellites are large compared to the head office, they start to make their own decisions and chafe against the established order.  This always generates friction and frequently leads to chaos - which is why companies often move their headquarters to the market that generates the most revenue.

3.        Bosses sitting apart from the main group = more problems.  This is essentially a misalignment of authority and responsibility – big groups tend to have more responsibilities than small ones and distant bosses tend to be viewed as backseat drivers.  This is often a particular problem for Asian multinationals, which tend to have highly centralized decision-making throughout the organization.  This usually leads to the local groups paying lip service to head office directives and then just doing what they want. 

4.        Different language and culture = more problems.  As with more satellites, this is just the result of greater complexity. 

5.        Directive leaders = more problems.  By definition, directive leaders are stronger at giving instructions than at listening to the viewpoints of others.  While sometimes unpleasant in a boss sitting down the hall, a failure to consult is ridiculous in a boss sitting in another city.   

6.        Indecisive leaders = more problems.  An indecisive leader is never a good thing, but the tyranny of distance greatly exacerbates the problems for dispersed teams.  This tends to cause the groups to atomize and go their own way, often openly ignoring the instructions of a boss sitting far away. 

7.        Unclear reporting lines = more problems.  A classic issue faced by support organizations located in a satellite office is that their nominal boss sits far away but their “customer” or “dotted line” boss sits right beside them, thus creating a significant conflict in loyalties.  Not knowing who your REAL boss is can be enormously frustrating and demoralizing for offsite teams.

8.        Us/them thinking = more problems.  The greater the perceived separation between two parts of a team, the less coordinated and more alienated those parts will be.  This is typically (and disastrously) the case when companies merge or make an acquisition.

9.        Poor communications (especially poor listening) = more problems.  Satellite teams feel an enormous anxiety about their isolation from the boss, and the fact that their day-to-day situation is invisible to him.  This feeling is amplified when the boss spends more time talking than listening.

 

3 Common Problems

The presence of one or more of these factors will result in 3 common problems for the satellite organizations.  These problems ultimately degrade the performance of the whole group. 

1.     Feeling ignored.  The great enemy in leading a dispersed team is “out of sight, out of mind.”  While it’s only natural to pay more attention to the things you see and to feel greater connection with the people you know, it’s exactly this fact that causes remote groups to feel ignored.  They KNOW that you have other things to do.  They KNOW that the people sitting down the hall are getting more face time than they are.  They KNOW that it’s an effort to drag yourself away from whatever you’re doing and listen to them tell you what’s happening far, far away.  This feeling of being ignored leads naturally to low morale, disaffection, and resentment towards the group leader.  I once had a team member from a satellite group say of the previous long-distance boss, “He didn’t even know all of our names.”  That feeling of being ignored heightens the team’s sense of isolation.

2.     Feeling unsupported.  More serious than feeling ignored is feeling unsupported.  The usual way this manifests itself is in relation to local conflicts (where the absentee boss sides with local managers from other groups, instead of with his own (lower ranked) people) and career development (where the boss favors team members he sees every day over those who sit in a different place).  Subordinates want bosses to stick up for them and to look out for their careers – to the extent that they don’t, the team starts to feel demoralized and helpless.

3.     Feeling disconnected.  Once a remote team has internalized the fact that it’s being ignored and not being supported, it will turn inwards and start looking out for itself as best it can.  Loyalties will become localized, information will be horded and the team will only pay as much attention to the far-away boss as is needed to avoid getting in trouble.

Once these problems emerge in the remote groups, they will start to impact the central group as well, because teams will begin to work out of sync and because the central team sees the unfair treatment of the remote teams. 

 

4 Rules For Managing Remote Teams

The key to leading organizations that are spread out is to make everyone feel like they’re part of one team.  There are 4 rules to follow in doing this:

1.     Visit them often.  If you’re the leader of a team that you haven’t even visited then you really shouldn’t be the leader of that team.  Quarterly visits are a bare minimum and monthly visits are much better.  The value of face-to-face communications, of letting the team see you in person, is priceless and will make all the difference in the team’s loyalty and morale.

2.     Have them visit you.  At least yearly, and more often for senior team members, people should travel from the remote site to the central group.  This greatly increases their engagement with the central group, allows them to make friends and professional connections, and gives them more of a sense of belonging than if they didn’t come.  These benefits will significantly improve the coordination and alignment of the central and remote teams.

3.     Communicate copiously.  Remember, the problems for remote teams all start with a feeling of being ignored.  Set up a regular schedule for communicating with the teams and the team members and stick to it.  If you miss a time, make it up.  This let’s the team know that you’re listening, that they’re important to you, and that what you say is worth listening to.  The most successful communications cadence I ever developed was for a team in North America, with the main group in Dallas and remote groups in Toronto, Seattle, and Atlanta.  The schedule looked like this:

a)       Monday morning, 8:00 a.m. – meeting of all directors and managers; remote teams attend by conference bridge

b)      Monday morning, 9:00 a.m. – meeting of all team members; remote teams attend by conference bridge

c)       Tuesday, various times – 1 hour meeting with each director and manager; remote team members by phone or Skype

d)      Monthly visit to each site.  Conducted Monday morning meetings from that site when I was there.

e)       Half yearly group meetings – the entire team from all sites gathered in one place (usually the head office) for a 2 day team meeting.

In addition, there were frequent ad hoc visits by me and by various team members as the business situation dictated.  Every year I had to fight a battle over our travel and communication budget, and every year I pointed to the various improved corporate metrics (customer satisfaction, turnover rates, efficiency measures) as justification.

4.     Appoint a local leader.  If the remote team is any size at all (more than 2 or 3 people) there must be a local leader who can be in charge and act as the boss’ proxy on day-to-day matters.  This is especially true when the environment is challenged or confrontational – junior people on their own without an experienced supervisor to help protect and guide them can too easily be bullied by local customers or managers. 

While managing teams that are spread over multiple sites will never be as easy as leading a group that all sit under one roof, being mindful of these 9 factors, 3 problems and 4 rules will help you gain the benefits of a diversified team.