Managing a remote IT team for high performance

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These days, most of us find ourselves managing a remote IT team in some way. Whether that’s our core team choosing to work from home, outsourcing to specialist or lower cost contractors, or you’ve truly built a distributed team, there are a lot of reasons to embrace remote work. But anyone who’s managed a remote team will also know there are plenty of problems and challenges associated with bringing out the best in a distributed team!

On the plus side, there's now strong evidence showing that businesses that embrace remote work make their teams happier and 'massively more productive'. But equally, there are also examples like Yahoo!, IBM and Hewlett-Packard that have decided to put a stop to working from home, citing a desire for improved communication and collaboration as the primary motivation.

But unless you’re going to take a drastic stance against remote work, it’s fairly clear that it’s here to stay. So let’s look at how we can best manage our teams when they’re not in the office with us.

Remote IT teams need more structure (not less)

When we think of remote teams, it’s often the flexibility that is one of the main attractions. Yes, it’s nice to be able to work from our homes or other locations, choose our own hours, and employ people from around the world, but this flexibility mindset also gets us into trouble.

For remote teams, there’s a tendency for managers to provide less structure than they would for a locally based team. That usually manifests in less meetings, less formally communicated expectations, less team building activities and less knowledge about what is actually happening on a day-to-day basis. Obviously this doesn’t make a lot of sense when you think that this is for team members that are separated from one another, lacking the visual cues of body language and facial expressions, and often have more cultural differences to deal with!

With teams that aren't physically working together in an office, there actually needs to be more structure to the week than might have been in place previously. What does this actually mean? 3 things specifically…

#1: Regular Meetings for Remote Teams

Yes, meetings can be a time suck, and the time zones can be challenging, but regular meetings are almost always necessary for getting everyone on the same page. You might want to instigate a weekly meeting where you all dial in, a daily check-in, or an end-of-week meeting where you report on what you've achieved for the week. Make sure you have a tight agenda and keep your meetings short so that no-one gets tempted to do other things at the same time.

As part of your meeting agenda, you should include a reference to your overall vision and goals. These are often under-communicated to remote teams and yet they’re so important to keep people focused on the right things and feeling motivated about their work.

An important part of your meetings should also be to create a system whereby people gradually get to know each other better. After all, when people know each other, they recognize the similarities and common ground, which leads to increased respect, and a greater desire not let their colleagues down. This can be something as simple as starting each meeting with some conversation about the weekend. Or, you could introduce a tradition of having a bizarre weekly question which prompts a more open discussion (eg “what’s on the menu for dinner tonight?”, “what are you watching on Netflix at the moment?” or “what’s one place you’ve always wanted to go?”). Although it might seem like a waste of time, these discussions help your remote team members know each other (and you) much better than they otherwise would if discussions are strictly limited to work. Chit chat like this happens naturally in an office, and although you might have to force it a little bit at first, you’ll soon find that people will get the hang of it when working remotely as well.

Another part of the solution is to share external feedback with the team. For instance, sharing customer feedback or client results can be incredibly motivating as it shows the team the real results of their work. Celebrating successes is a catch-cry often used, but in the day-to-day of business, it can sometimes be hard to see the successes. Instead of trying to find huge ‘wins’, find the micro wins that you can celebrate. Positive feedback is still the most underutilized management tool available, so build it into your regular meeting agenda.

#2: Agreed Communication Protocols

When working with remote teams, it’s the right tools form an important part of the equation. In general, you'll probably need; online file/document storage, a chat system, a group call/video system, a team productivity system, and possibly a project management system. Finding the right combination of these can take some trial and error, but it's well worth the effort.

However, the right tools is not all you need. You also need a Team Agreement that spells out how and when you’ll use these tools. For instance, do you expect all team members to be available on chat all day? During your hours or theirs? It can often be useful to define some core hours that you’ll all be online.

You might also define your expectations as to what response times you expect for different types of communications and other things they should communicate. For instance, do you want your team members to communicate when they’re going to lunch or clocking off? If they’re working on something but haven’t yet found a solution, should they let others know?

#3: A System for Sharing-Your-Work

Regardless of which remote management tools you’re using, what you really want to know is what people are working on today. Instilling a culture where everyone proactively shares what he or she is working on that day makes a huge difference in how remote teams work.

When you know what your team members are working on, you can:

  • have relevant conversations that are specific to their work
  • intercept any work that is not a top priority
  • guide specific collaborations by encouraging certain team members to communicate about certain tasks
  • give relevant encouragement and feedback

But most importantly, having visibility to your team’s daily plans encourages a lot more trust within the team. There are no doubts as to what everyone is doing or how hard they are working. (Even if you think your team already has high levels of trust, a system like this will increase it.)

This transparency, also promotes a high-performance team culture. When team members can see their colleagues working away on something, they’re more inclined to make sure they are pulling their weight and contributing to the team. No one wants to let the team down.

Your team can submit their daily work plan via chat tools, email or some other tool.

So there you have it - the 3 keys to managing a remote IT team. Which are do you need to make improvements?

Fiona Adler is the founder of Actioned.com
Image source: Shutterstock/bikeriderlondon