For many of us, those of us who work in technology-based companies, start-ups or as a solopreneursRemote work or telecommuting has been the norm for several years now. However, working remotely is not the same as managing remote teams. Although managing and coordinating teams is also work, it requires strong communication and leadership skills. This article presents some keys to effective remote team management.
Working and coordinating are not the same thing
Those who have managed people know that there is a big difference between doing and coordinating. The first, doing, is an almost always autonomous activity where, thanks to your skills and knowledge, you manage to complete an objective. The second, coordinating, is different because achieving the objective does not depend on your own capabilities but on the capabilities and knowledge of others. The objective must be reached by others and your job is to make them reach it efficiently and effectively.
If we were all robots coordinating would be very simple, and similar to playing a video game. Coordinating would be giving clear commands like walk, walk up, walk down, jump, run or stop. However, humans are quite different. In the knowledge age our jobs require creative and divergent thinking, conflict and crisis resolution, critical thinking, and much more. Likewise humans don't just think rationally, we have feelings, which make coordination contemplate many things, such as inspiring or motivating, correcting, and sometimes it can include walking away and not intervening.
Coordinating people requires different skills that allow us to build a broader perspective of others. Some authors speak of soft skills (soft skills o people skills). These skills are put to the test when we manage teams and even more so when we coordinate remote teams. So, if we want to manage remote teams effectively, we must not forget that we have to learn to coordinate teams. These soft skills include among many things:
- Leadership and decision making skills
- Critical thinking
- Conflict resolution
It is possible to include many other skills, but most books on leadership and soft skills have a common factor of very good communication skills.
Communication challenges in remote teams
Communication is the essence of teamwork. When we try to interact and coordinate several people, communication is the only tool available. So all the keys to managing remote teams effectively are directly related to the ability to clearly and forcefully communicate information.
1. Channel: Wealth and Effectiveness
To achieve this, the first challenge refers to the communication channels we use to transmit our messages. Scott W. Ambler evaluates communication channels according to their richness and effectiveness. The first refers to how much information and with what level of detail I can convey in a message. The second refers to how faithful the message received (decoded by the receiver) is to the original message and intent.
As we can see, face-to-face communication and face-to-face communication with the ability to enhance drawings are the two most powerful channels. Curiously, the ones that suffer the most in remote teams, even more so if they are geographically dispersed.
Tips to improve team communication
- Establish channels and tools to improve communication.
- Avoid using email for everything - communicate, share, validate and, if necessary, send an email with a summary of agreements and important information.
- Instant messaging systems should not be formal channels of communication. Important things are communicated in the richest and most powerful channel available. Leave chats to other things and don't assume that typing guarantees "reception" let alone "understanding".
Maturity of the team
The second challenge is the maturity of the team. Bruce Tuckman proposed in 1965 a model of team development and evolution that is very popular today. This model assumes different stages for a team with different management and coordination needs. The model proposes "phases of development" known as:
- Forming - the team is assigned and the members hardly know each other - as members.
- Storming - the assigned team suffers some friction during their interactions as they are discovering and validating individual understanding of team norms - conflicts arise based on: "I thought that you...", "I was sure that I...".
- Norming - Once the conflict phase is over, the assumptions have been resolved and the team knows and masters the team rules (formal and informal). They know who does what and who is accountable for what. From the mechanics of interaction to the team's own activities.
- Performing - This is the ideal phase of every team, where we want to be with our teams. Beyond the rules, we are a team, united and strengthened. Beyond our individual responsibilities, we are all one, there is synergy. We are more than the sum of our parts.
This challenge does not represent a new responsibility for the leader or coordinator. However, it is key that the management of the team is consistent with the maturity level of the team. We call this "adaptive leadership".
Tips to strengthen our adaptive leadership
- If the team is not yet mature:
- Define clear work rules, roles and responsibilities.
- In some cases, the group may need detailed work plans - even for the short term.
- Establish a team schedule - times when each team member should be available to his or her teammates.
- Promote frank discussion about what works and what doesn't work.
- If the team is mature:
- Delegating while staying in the know
- Keep one foot in the metrics. Data-driven decisions mitigate the risk of subjectivity and excessive "buddy-ism" (fear of conflict).
- Don't allow the team to abandon continuous improvement practices by believing that "there is no more room for improvement".
The following video by David Marquet talks about the challenges and benefits of teams where individuals are part of the decisions and are not just "people following orders".
The third challenge in coordinating teams is scale, and its that for remote teams. The scale is the number of people who are part of the team. For example, in some agile frameworks explicit reference is made to the number of people that can make up a team, almost always referring to 7 +/- 2 (or 5 to 9).
Scale represents challenges on many fronts, but above all, for the Conceptual Integrity. Conceptual Integrity is a term coined by Fred Brooks several decades ago. This term, which is very computer literate, serves me in this context to define how clear and homogeneous a concept is across a group of people. The higher the Conceptual Integrity, the less divergent and conflictive the constructive process, while alignment (thinking in the same direction) simplifies communication.
On the other hand, we have the large teams - although some literature says that the difference between team and group is precisely the number of people. Large teams have additional challenges associated with governance and coordination. Their scale makes them more complex to manage.
Dunbar's mysterious number
But how big is a "big team" at work. The anthropologist Robin Dunbar posits that this number of people is 147.8 (many round up to 150). That number is known as "Dunbar's number" and it is the number of people who can relate fully and effectively as a real team. If you are interested in the subject, I invite you to read the famous book "The Tipping Point" by Malcolm Gladwell presents the concept in a very interesting way.
It is foolish to assume that a team of 5 people can be managed in the same way as a team of 150 people. Hence today we talk about concepts such as Agile at Scale, and agile frameworks for large companies such as:
Although each team is a different universe, building on the experience of others is what we call in research "standing on the shoulders of giants".
The final communication challenge considers the location of the people on the team. Where people in a remote team are located can involve many elements to consider, including: time zone, the ability to set a "team schedule", political and cosmological views - many consider a person's religion to be dependent on their place and date of birth. Language, food and even the jokes that can be made within a team depend on where people are located.
How to manage remote teams effectively?
Now we have clear the key factors and elements that define a team, and a remote team, now, what are the tips, the key tricks that we can apply to better manage remote work teams.
1. Establish communication channels.
Remote teams require clear communication channels. Today there are so many communication tools that, if you don't, you will end up with several channels for which there is no clear purpose.
If you doubt the above, I invite you to open your phone and identify how many WhatsApp groups you have. How many of them have had "social incidents" and "heated arguments" because of the purpose of the group? How many times have you written or read a message similar to this: "that's not the purpose of this group"?
Experienced remote teams use one, or two, communication channels. And they will give priority to systems that we could call "rich instant messaging". That is, group chat rooms where you can send and receive files, keep a task board, and even segment the room into subgroups (breakdown). The most commonly used tools of this type to date are:
If you are interested in learning more about the tools, you can give a look at this article that it makes a very complete comparison.
2. A single source of truth - single source of truth
This is particularly important for teams at scale. Each person within the team must find very quickly, almost immediately, the up-to-date information they need to do their job or understand what others are doing.
There are many ways to achieve this, but the one I like the most is the perspective of agility and self-organizing models. Management systems like Kanban, or Kanban combined with Scrumare models where information is shared through task boards.
Task boards are critical to maintaining that single source of truth. In the "physical" or "Low-Tech High-Touch" world we have the boards and sticky papers. But in the virtual world we have true collaboration tools like:
Personally I enjoy the simplicity and power of some tools like Trello. If I'm going to use Microsoft Teams or Slack, I'll always try to have these management tools natively integrated. Having notifications in the group messaging system is essential to maintain the spirit of "few channels and a single source of truth".
3. Team schedule
Remote work can be a real problem for team productivity. Remember that synergy assumes that the overall result of a team is greater than the sum of individual efforts. But, there is no synergy, let alone high performance, if there is no time to work as teams. My recommendation is to establish some rules about time management, scheduling and autonomy.
Establish videoconferencing or telepresence tools to bring the team closer together. Part of the challenge of team development involves creating a team identity and spirit, as well as building trust among members. If they are never together and never talk to each other directly (as close to face-to-face as possible), it will be impossible to build those bonds that are fundamental to team performance.
Video Conferencing Tools
Some tools I use for this are:
- Google Hangouts
- Slack (its videoconferencing capabilities are a bit limited for my taste)
- Shared calendar - almost always Google Calendar or Teamup
4. Adaptive planning and iterations
Iterations are short cycles of time, preferably of the same length. Scrumfor example, comes up with Sprints, which is a timebox concept where tasks are planned, executed and completed - I'm over-simplifying.
Iterations are very useful to adjust the work plan and allow, among many things, to keep the level of effort constant.
5. Segmentation and governance
If the team is very large, or geographically dispersed, segment the team into smaller teams that match in availability and location. This will force you to set up governance models to synchronize and communicate between teams. This is a bigger problem if the team is very large, but set up cadence for certain events.
More than computer tools, here I invite you to take a look at the following concepts
- Sprint Planning
- Sprint Retrospective
- Big Room Planning o Program Increment Planning Meeting
- Backlog Grooming or Refinement
6. Good meetings
From segmentation and governance I am left with the management of meetings. We've all been in them. We all know that most meetings are a real waste of time.
If you think that all you have to do to hold meetings is to find the space in everyone's agenda and call it, I invite you to dedicate yourself to something other than coordinating.
Remember to differentiate the meetings you plan, avoid at all costs making meetings for everything at the same time. Summoning everyone to a meeting room and expecting to solve all these types of meetings is the most common mistake of those who do not know how to manage.
- Understanding the work to be done (JTBD)
- Work planning
- Synchronization and tracking
- Evaluation of progress and performance
- Continuous improvement and reflection
If you are interested in learning about effective meeting management I invite you to read:
7. Performance Measurement
Finally, and I am sure I have left some things out so I invite you to leave your comments, we must establish performance evaluation mechanisms. These can be hard data or team reflection spaces. However, it all depends on the maturity level of the team and the capacity we have as coordinators to collect performance information in an objective and timely manner.
Some useful metrics are:
- Fulfillment - how much of what we planned we were able to complete
- Speed - how much we are completing iteration by iteration
- Engagement - what our level of engagement looks like on a day-to-day basis
- Confidence about delivery - how confident we are about what we plan and our progress
Connected and engaged
In short, we must keep the team "connected" and "engaged". Iterations and good meetings are key to mitigate frustration and boredom. The idea is to keep the team in "flow state"The effort of each cycle is compensated with the existing capacities and, of course, those that we are building with each step we take in the work.
The distance of remote teams needs to be compensated with direct and constant accompaniment when there is no maturity of the team (Forming y Storming) and evolve with the team to a consultative or coaching type of accompaniment when performing at a higher level (Norming y Performing). To manage remote teams effectively you need a strategy.
Extra - Presentation
After writing this article I was invited to present a Webinar for the PMI Panama Chapter. Here is the presentation that accompanied the speech and the discussion with the attendees.