7 tips for leading remote IT teams successfully

Managing virtual work environments requires an assortment of real-world skills and tools. Here are the tactics that inspire creativity and productivity.

7 tips for leading remote IT teams successfully
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To succeed in an increasingly talent-starved and competitive IT world, more enterprises are relying on geographically dispersed workforces. Such organizations build IT teams providing the best functional expertise, regardless of each individual's physical location. While collocated teams (every member working at same physical site) may have advantages over dispersed teams in some respects, there's a growing consensus that a well-planned and organized dispersed/remote team may actually give adopters the upper hand.

The big challenge facing any team scattered across multiple locations is getting isolated individuals to work together as a cohesive unit. "Remote teams can't be treated like collocated teams, where status, goals, risk and problems are discussed in team meetings, at lunch and at the water cooler," explains Joe Wilson, owner of Volare Systems, a Denver-based custom software development company. "You must be disciplined with communication when managing 100 percent remote teams, because there are no chance encounters like you get in the office hallway," says Wilson, who has built and managed remote teams for the past decade.

Leading a dispersed IT team to long-term success requires dedication and special leadership skills, including the ability to organize, motivate and inspire members to work as creatively and adeptly as if they were based on site. Here are seven secrets top IT leaders use to get their remote workers to excel and succeed.

1. Exert strong, clear leadership

Firm leadership is essential, whether team members are located down the hall or several time zones away.

"Smart leaders will proactively identify potential goal conflicts and ensure that the goals of the team as a whole are clear and aligned with other responsibilities team members may have," suggests Anita Williams Woolley, an associate professor of organizational behavior and theory at Carnegie Mellon University's Tepper School of Business.

A leader's top priority is establishing clear and aligned project objectives. "Remote IT teams fail because there isn’t a clear direction from leadership, or if there is a clear direction, it fails to take into consideration the perspective of employees in ... remote environments," says Helen Dayen, an executive coach and CEO of The Dayen Group, a coaching and career development firm.

Lacking strong leadership and defined goals, remote workers may begin feeling isolated. "They reduce their communication and become less collaborative," Dayen explains. Over time, the team grows increasingly less effective and productive. "Distance does not make the heart grow fonder," she notes. "It allows room for assumptions to grow and, frequently, human nature and the human mind will naturally create negative assumptions about people or situations."

2. Encourage feedback

Collaboration is a two-way street. While team members need clear, direct instructions from their project chief, the leader also needs to know what each team member is up to and whether meaningful progress is being made. To achieve this capability, a feedback process should be established. "Oversee the feedback to make sure it’s constructive and about making the product better, not showing off or winning an argument," Wilson suggests.

A big mistake many leaders make is assuming that no news is good news. Some remote team members will drift toward silence if left alone. "They won’t always tell you if they're struggling with something," Wilson observes. He suggests scheduling one to two daily check-ins, with webcams turned on, to pose open-ended questions to quiet team members. "Things like: 'How’s it going on X?' 'How can I help?' and 'Is there anything you need me to do to make your job easier?'" he says.

3. Find the right people

Understand that a certain number of people, regardless of talent and experience, simply aren't cut out to be remote workers. It's not a role they feel comfortable in, preferring instead the personal interactions, events and bustling environment a collocated staffer typically experiences. "We know that some people possess higher levels of collaboration skills than others," Woolley says. "In our research, we repeatedly find that social perceptiveness — being aware of others' reactions and understanding why they react as they do — is a strong predictor of collective intelligence in both face-to-face and dispersed teams."

Some people also have trouble adjusting to unfamiliar schedules. Such individuals, accustomed to a traditional nine-to-five work routine, often have difficulty handling time-zone differences. This is an issue that affects many dispersed teams, particularly those with members scattered around the world, Woolley notes. She recommends creating a plan to share the pain, such as having team members take turns on setting meeting times. "Most types of IT work can be planned so that much of it can be done asynchronously, so using real-time meetings judiciously and for targeted discussion of critical issues is important."

4. Book some face-to-face time

While collaborative technologies allow dispersed/remote teams to work effectively, their ability to build close rapport and camaraderie between participants remains limited.

Christopher McFarlane, a Scrum master and agile coach for a major Canadian retail chain, believes that periodic in-person visits are necessary to allow social bonding to occur. "An in-person interaction allows teammates to learn more about each other, such as culture, background, interests and motivations," he explains. "It's a short-term investment that leads to long-term cost-savings by nurturing trust between team members."

Adam Vazquez, vice president of IT for enterprise analytics and data management at Hewlett Packard Enterprise, agrees. "You need to establish a strong face-to-face cadence — quarterly, monthly or bi-annually — whatever makes sense for your culture and project goals," he says. Be proactive. Don't wait for problems to surface before arranging a get-together. Ensure your teams celebrate meaningful moments together, Vazquez suggests. Turn on the videoconferencing technology so everyone can celebrate in real time. "It's the simple things, like coming together for birthday celebrations, that allows everyone to feel connected," he notes.

5. Cap the team size

A team's size can play a significant role in how well it functions. "Smaller teams, up to 10 people or so, can be far nimbler than those twice that size," observes Peggy Smith, CEO of Worldwide ERC, a trade organization serving workforce mobility professionals. "It’s just more challenging for large dispersed teams to contribute effectively in real-time meetings and makes the asynchronous conversations more complex as well." Breaking teams into small groups, each focused on a specific project area, generally leads to greater productivity.

6. Value all team members equally

To ensure long-term team success, each member needs to feel appreciated. Some leaders, for instance, make the mistake of having the team location with the most members set workday rules and procedures.

"This has the potential of conveying the message to team members in other locations that their contributions are not as valued," McFarlane says. To ensure harmony and cohesiveness, the entire team should collectively come up with mutually beneficial rules. "Making everyone share the burden creates a sense of empathy with what other team members have to endure," he notes.

Another potential morale killer is when some team members are in the same location as the group leader. "Those in proximity to the leader naturally have more access to him/her," Smith says. "Even if the leader manages this proximity difference well, there could be a perception among those in other locations that they don't receive the same focus or feedback," she explains. Having remote and collocated people on the same team can be a recipe for dysfunction.

7. Utilize multiple communication platforms

Communication is the key to successful team collaboration, and its importance can't be underestimated. "There is no such thing as over-communicating when it comes to disperse and remote teams," Vazquez says. "I have found that using technology with video and whiteboard capabilities during team meetings goes a long way in creating that in-person feeling when you're virtual."

The magic that allows dispersed/remote teams to function at levels matching or even exceeding their collocated counterparts are rich communication technologies, such as Zoom (video conferencing), Slack (collaboration/messaging), Trello (project organization) and WebEx (video conferencing/whiteboarding). Meanwhile, basic communication modes, such as texts and emails, can be effective for keeping team members up to date and solving simple problems.

But try not to rely too heavily on these simple tools, Dayen warns. "The biggest mistake leaders make is thinking that email/chat communication is enough when, in reality, it takes far more to have a successful environment."

Copyright © 2019 IDG Communications, Inc.

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