Managing teams that are thousands of miles away

Written by Joe McKendrick, Contributing Writer

How do you get the most out of managing remote teams and employees who either telecommute from their homes or work in remote offices?

As enterprises of all sizes and industries increasingly compete within in a global environment, more managers are finding they need to manage teams and employees who may be thousands of miles away. "Virtual teams" and "telework" seem like productive strategies, both in terms of increasing employee commitment and morale, attracting valuable talent, and cutting costs and operating greener.

However, a poll and a study come to different conclusions about the efficacy of such highly distributed work environments.

The informal poll, conducted by VitalSmarts and the authors of Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High, looks at the impact on working relationships when employees never see one another on a more intimate, face-to-face basis. The study concludes that "distance in the workplace does more harm than good." Their survey of 500 people finds that 13 out of 14 common workplace relationship problems occur far more frequently within teams with members scattered across various geographies than within teams located in the same building. Plus, the problems that arise take a lot longer to solve.

Still, a new survey says the exact opposite, that remote teams and employees can be much more productive. Cisco studied the impact of telework among close to 2,000 of its own employees, and reports that a majority of these respondents "experienced a significant increase in work-life flexibility, productivity and overall satisfaction as a result of their ability to work remotely. Seven out ten cited higher productivity when working remotely, and 75% said the timeliness of their work improved. In addition, 83% said their ability to communicate and collaborate with co-workers was the same as, if not better than, it was when working on-site. Plus, there have been significant environmental benefits as well. Cisco estimates that its teleworkers prevented approximately 47,320 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions from being released into the environment due to avoided travel. Cisco employees also report a fuel cost savings of $10.3 million per year due to telecommuting.

So which study is right? As with many things, the success of remote work comes down to corporate culture and adroit management. As just reported by my colleague Heather Clancy, Cisco is a highly visionary company when it comes to smart networking.

An article in MIT Sloan Management Review lays out some of the best practices in managing remote teams of employees (registration required to view article). Frank Siebdrat, Martin Hoegl and Holger Ernst surveyed 392 managers and professionals from 80 software development teams from across the globe, concluding that "virtual teams can outperform their colocated counterparts when they are set up and managed in the right way."

The authors suggest the following steps to managing virtual teams and employees:

Emphasize teamwork skills: Even the most talented individuals may not have exemplary collaboration skills, the authors observe. "Many companies make the mistake of staffing such teams primarily (if not solely) on the basis of people’s expertise and availability. Instead, managers must also consider social skills — a major prerequisite for good teamwork — as a much more pivotal part of the catalog of requirements."

Promote self-leadership: "Geographic dispersion and cultural diversity make it difficult for any individual leader to ensure that the team is functioning effectively.... This highlights the need for people to be more self-sufficient in how they manage their own work because the team leader is less in a position to help."

Provide for face-to-face meetings: Periodic face-to-face meetings -- such as a project kick-off meeting -- of virtual team members "can be particularly effective for initiating and maintaining key social processes that will encourage informal communication, team identification and cohesion."

Foster a “global" culture: "A global mind-set, in which people see themselves as part of an international network, helps provide an environment that is conducive to dispersed teams."

The ability to apply new styles of management to virtual teams is a smart approach, because virtual workplaces have potential to greatly improve productivity, as well as the sustainability of the enterprise.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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