Long before the days of Skype, intranets, and email – teams generally needed to be in the same location in order to work effectively.
Those days are long gone and many of us now work regularly with colleagues based in different cities, countries, and continents with team members in different time zones, speaking different languages, and from different cultures.
Teams can now include many varieties or flavours of working practices. Some members may work in groups of three or more in the same office, while others may work individually in separate offices or at home. You may see some team members regularly, but you may rarely see others or even have not met at all.
Regardless of how people are organised, managing a team that's geographically dispersed can present big challenges, even for the most experienced bosses. How do you ensure that everyone feels they're being treated fairly, if you see some team members much more than others? How can you prevent remote team members from feeling isolated? And how do you get all members to buy into the team's objectives and stay on track?
When selecting people to work in a geographically dispersed team, it throws up the need for individuals with strong qualities such as self-motivation and the ability to work independently rather than those that need constant encouragement. They will need to have exceptional communication skills and be comfortable communicating regularly via Skype or conference call. Finally, and as with almost every hire you make, they need to be results-driven and comfortable being assessed using KPIs.
Reward performance fairly, consistently and appropriately across the group, making sure workers in remote offices feel as valued and rewarded as those in the same location as you.
The key for me with leading a geographically dispersed team is that it's essential for members to unite around a common purpose - everyone must agree to the team's strategic objectives and goals.
Breaking down your strategy and showing where each individual and team contributes to delivering it is an excellent and powerful way to achieve this. This "roadmap" for your team ensures that everyone is focused on what the whole IT organisation needs to deliver and how they enact within it.
From breaking down your strategy to the team or individual level, you can clearly define everyone's roles and responsibilities, identify key resources, and decide how the team operates. This can then be used to set the relative goals and objectives that each individual can be assessed by.
You MUST create and operate a strong communications strategy, especially if your team members are in different time zones and speak different languages.
It is easy to misunderstand a message or directive if you're being communicated with in a language that is not your mother tongue, so it’s imperative that you follow up as often as you can across your team(s) and make sure everyone understands and is clear on what you're trying to achieve. Good meeting practice with clear agendas and well-written minutes should help allay any miscommunication.
It’s easy when managing geographically dispersed teams to not realise the morale of individuals is being effected, as due to the lack of daily contact you won’t be able to see their body language or detect any slight deviations in attitude.
It’s easy for individuals to think that your behaviour or lack of contact is a direct slight on their performance or lack of meaning to the cause.
They know you're busy but be careful when communicating via email that your emails aren’t too abrupt or short, especially as they may be well be picked up and read differently in a time zone where they can’t instantly communicate with you to discuss or clarify the underlying tone. Also, make a rule for yourself that you don’t miss more than one team conference or video call in a row.
Don’t lose sight of the need to be personable and approachable to anybody no matter of their location or position, as there is more to leading geographically dispersed teams than just sitting in on conference calls or throwing out the option to email you if there’s an issue.
Trust me, people will really appreciate you just picking up the phone or making regular visits and hosting a team meal or evening drink – it helps to break down barriers and shows people that they are part of the larger team despite the size or location of their team.
Finally, its important to promote team bonding and if you can (budget permitting) get the whole team together at least once a year even if only for a couple of days or at a key location per region depending on size.
Make these events informative and a forum for creativity and discussion but don’t forget to add in a bit of fun through some social activities.
As well as this, look at setting up some inexpensive webcams for team members to Skype each other and an Intranet team page or forum where individuals can input suggestions or throw ideas around.
Tools such as Yammer, Chatter and Messenger can also allow constant contact and are great as an instant communication channel as they allow you to do things such as see that somebody in a remote location is available and crossing over on your time zone be they working late or coming in early.