Managing an ‘invisible’ team of people – who don’t sit anywhere near you and may not even be in the same time zone – can be a huge challenge.
How do you make sure out of sight isn’t out of mind? Yvette Gyles, Assistant Director of =mc, looks at how to manage effectively at a distance.
We work with many organisations that have remote teams. Whether it’s home workers, regional offices or international colleagues, managing individuals you may be in the same space as less than half a dozen times a year is tough. To help you make the best of this tricky situation, we’ve gathered together participants’ top tips from =mc’s in-house management development programmes.
- Make it frequent
In a ‘normal’ office environment you tend to see, hear or bump into people at least once a day. It’s then generally fairly straightforward to get a sense of how they are feeling, and to have a good idea of who’s on top of things and who may need help. This is much harder when your team is scattered in different locations. You can get closer to a similar sense of finger-on-the-pulse through frequent contact. Make it daily, if possible, and vary the channel – maybe a mix of phone calls, Skype, email, text and even group chats via applications such as WhatsApp.
- Make it realistic
Avoid making your contact simply about exchanging business information – going through reports or giving updates. Aim to make some of it more like a conversation. Ask questions, share anecdotes to help with learning, encourage reflection, take a coaching approach when appropriate. When it’s not possible to make personal observations of your individuals’ performance it’s really important they can reflect and feedback on themselves. You might need to help them do this.
- Commit to the call
When you are making a phone call, it’s tempting to multitask and check your inbox. Resist. However ‘professional’ you think you’re being your distraction will be reflected in your voice. You wouldn’t do that in a meeting, don’t do it on a call. One manager told me they struggled with this, so closed Outlook and replaced it with a picture of their colleague (with the colleague’s consent). This made it easier for the manager to form a connection over the phone.
- Energetic emails and newsletters
Many participants had tried getting staff to contribute to a regular group email or newsletter to encourage a sense of team. Unfortunately, they tended to end up being less a rallying point for esprit de corps and more a collective to-do list. Try instead to keep business updates small – and relevant – and focus on engaging topics. Rather than a list of tasks, ask people to share useful learning, interesting news, things they have read or challenges they have overcome.
- A personal touch
Good management is professional – with an element of personal. When you don’t see people, you can miss out on the casual personal catch ups. There is no ‘Did you have a nice evening?’ or ‘What are you doing tonight?’ or impromptu chats on the way to the kitchen. So when you’re on a call or Skype or even emailing a remote colleague, do make sure you ask about more than just work – and then remember what they tell you. I know a great manager who keeps notes on her team members’ pets, children’s/partner’s name, and what’s top of mind for them to refer to when she’s in touch.
- Don’t forget
If you work with or manage people who are not nearby it can be a chore to coordinate diaries. Nevertheless, it’s important that you book calls and, as far as humanly possible, stick with those bookings – especially if some of your team are in the same building and others are not. Never forget or cancel a meeting with your invisible team. Make it a priority and stick to it.
- Don’t be a robot
Regular calls (at least fortnightly) and daily contact can only go so far. Nothing really replaces face time. Try to see people as often as you can – show you’re a real person and not merely a disembodied voice. Use Skype if travel is an issue.
For further information on how =mc can help with your management development, contact Yvette Gyles on firstname.lastname@example.org or call 020 7978 1516 to speak to one of our Learning & Development consultants.
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