It’s a global, multigenerational world of work. And as if that’s not enough to deal with,many leaders find themselves managing geographically distributed work teams, often with wildly divergent schedules, personalities, cultural nuances, work habits, and – this is the difficult part – job expectations.
Take Sally, a CIO for a software company headquartered in New York. Sally works from her home near Boston. She manages two teams with thirty members each. Team TISI +% 1 has people in LA, London, and in New York. Team 2 has people in Munich, New York, Mumbai and a sole employee who works from home in North Carolina.
Sally’s management challenges include communications with her team and with her managers in New York; knowledge-sharing; goal-setting for individuals and for the teams; on-time delivery of services to clients; reporting to clients, and managing everyone’s expectations. Sally’s experience is not unique. For most companies today – startup to enterprise – a distributed multigenerational workforce is the norm, not the exception. Instead of company cafeterias, marked parking spaces and office with real doors, we find ourselves trying to work with people whose habits and work ethics may be at conflict with our own. Lacking a shared workspace in which to negotiate differences and discuss how to work well together, people try to optimize virtual workspaces with technology aids such as chat, text, email, shared document repositories like Basecamp, filesharing sites such as Dropbox, and teleconferencing services like GoToMeeting.
In a distributed work team, perhaps more than in a centralized physical office, strong leadership and process are necessary to retain your talent.
Here’s 5 steps global leaders need to make distributed teams happy and engaged:
1) An acknowledged and respected team leader. While we all aspire to collaborate effectively, a strong, decisive and sensitive leader is critical to team functioning. The team leader must be directive without micromanaging, sympathetic without being easily manipulated, a good listener and coach, and a project manager focused on achieving results. Perhaps most importantly, the leader must be committed to the team’s success, as well as the success of each team member.
2) Defined roles. Each team member must know his or her role and acknowledge what they’re responsible for. Teams where roles are fuzzy are less productive and may create dissatisfaction.
3) A tested process. People need process, some more than others, but with distributed teams it’s a lifesaver. Process should encompass goal setting, task management, exception handling, scheduling, and monitoring and reporting. It’s not always the team leader who handles all those tasks, but the leader must know who’s managing what, and how well, at all times.
4) A communications routine. This should include acceptable forms of communication for specific use cases. For example IM or chat may be enough to answer quick questions but email is best for actions where you need a chain of custody or responsibility. It’s a challenge to convey meaning in email, especially anything with emotional overtones, so teleconferences with a webcam are more useful for team discussions that require sensitivity.
5) A system of rewards and reality checks. It can be very useful to pair team members on tasks to ensure there’s always someone paying attention to getting the job done. And when there’s an oversight – even if it’s between peers – surprises are less likely. Even with the best processes and communications, team members occasionally falter or fail. And sometimes they exceed expectations. Be prepared for both eventualities.
Geographically distributed work teams can be a great source of creativity and energy, or a huge drag on productivity and results. It’s really in the hands of the leader which way it goes. While the list above is basic, it’s got the core of what distributed teams need to be productive and stay committed. Global leaders please stay human and present for your teams. Stay ahead of your competition by remaining engaged with your talent on a regular basis.
A version of this post was first published on Forbes on 6/11/12.
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