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Remote Team Management: The Hows and Whys

GM Kanan, the head of installation and commissioning at a large project, was desperate to reach out to his colleague, Prasanna. However, several attempts to contact him yielded no result.

Kanan needed an update on a project installation, which was important for the afternoon meeting he was scheduled to have with the senior management. He asked his assistant to try the landline number at the site office and check whether Prasanna had reached the site or not. The response was negative.

I was a witness to this incident and could see that Kanan was visibly worried. After several attempts for more than an hour, Kanan finally succeeded in getting through to Prasanna.

Surprisingly, Kanan did not reprimand Prasanna for being inaccessible as I had expected. Instead, Kanan first checked on Prasanna’s well-being and then spoke about work.

Kanan later shared that the site where Prasanna was to visit to check on the machinery installation, was in a remote location. Though, Prasanna was travelling in a company-owned car, it was a bumpy ride. He was also aware of the existence of long stretches of road with limited mobile connectivity.

Kanan shared his philosophy of managing people, “It is important to trust and more important to trust a bit more, especially when team members are working remotely. Travelling through the interiors of the country has its own challenges – traffic stops for no apparent reasons. In some of the areas, Naxalite attacks are fairly common. Mobiles may have increased connectivity but one cannot guarantee connectivity at all times. Hence, it is important to first understand what has happened before responding or reacting to the situation.”

It is a common tendency to believe that if the mobile is not accessible and the individual has not reached the site, then the employee is whiling away his time. Therefore, it is important to keep contact with the employee on a regular basis, monitor his/her behaviour, and observe his/her tone whilst speaking.

As a manager, you need to be proactive to reach out to your project engineers and define the protocols of contact. Working on sites does offer employees some flexibility, but one must have faith to believe that most employees work diligently. One needs to, therefore, demonstrate trust, show empathy towards the working conditions and focus on the contribution / work to keep the project engineer motivated. Simple gestures can prove to be great connectors — enquiring about family once in a while, checking on the health of the individual or sharing something about oneself—an anecdote or a joke! Close monitoring in such situations can be perceived negatively and may act as a demotivator.

Last but not the least, voice and e-mail is typically the only way to connect. It is important for one to understand the power of one’s voice over the phone.

As I heard Kanan discuss and share his thoughts about managing his team, I remembered another discussion amongst the project managers of an IT firm. We were defining competencies for project leaders. The discussion was on whether the competencies will differ based on teams being managed – on-site and off-site. Many project leaders or project managers in the IT industry manage teams where a part of the members are based out of client location. The group was divided and it was becoming difficult to reach a consensus. I requested the team to share relevant stories or experiences, which could help us identify differences in managing the team, if there were any.

Pradeep initiated the discussion by broaching the topic of conflicts between the developer and the client. In such cases, there is a difference in the feedback from both. It requires multiple calls and detailed conversations to understand and help both the parties reconcile their differences. In case of a direct employee, this kind of conflict can be typically resolved in a single meeting.

Amit shared his experience of how he was agitated and upset with his team member for not completing the work on time. It was only after two days that he realised that the team member had actually been working the nights for the last few days. The other colleague who was assisting him was unwell and as a result, he had taken the burden of completing the work all on himself. In a face- to-face interaction, such a communication gap would be rare.

Suddenly, all others in the group started discussing animatedly the misunderstandings, challenges and issues faced while managing team members remotely. Many of these were created due to misunderstandings about date and time, due to geographic or cultural differences or differences in non-working days.

The challenge of managing teams remotely is compounded when the team is small. In case of large teams with more than 15 members, an experienced person is able to easily support the team and acts as a pseudo leader. The group agreed that managing the team remotely required a different set of competencies.

A manager needs to demonstrate a flexible mindset and an attitude to adapt to different situations. He needs to demonstrate the ability to stretch — take calls at unearthly hours, even on holidays and not allow work hours to restrict him from connecting with the employees. He needs to demonstrate energy and proactively connect with the employee(s). He has to understand the employee(s), and go beyond the given task to do so. Most importantly, he requires to empathise with the employee, support him and alleviate his loneliness.

The other aspect is pre-planning. Both the manager and team members needs to pre-plan because the time available for interaction is limited. Whether by skype / video conference or through phone calls, the challenge is to maintain focus and yet make time for bonding. It helps if the manager is proactive in sharing and asking for information, much before the call. Preparation always helps to stay focussed on the call and at the same time provide the time to establish personal connect.

Managing a team was never an easy task. However, managing team members remotely is even more challenging and requires additional effort to ensure effectiveness!

(The author is director, Cerebrus Consultants.)

© 2015 HR Katha