How to manage your staff from Ipanema Beach
His Manhattan office was a 1997 fantasy of what remote team management was all about – a high-tech media wall used for videoconferencing, computing, and television, all controlled from his telephone headset and a wireless keyboard strapped to him like a marching band drum.
Scenes showed him barking orders into his telephone headset or typing rapid-fire on his keyboard, setting in motion chains of events in faraway places.
Problem is, he was in an office high above mid-town Manhattan – hardly anyone’s dream destination.
The real challenge today isn’t to manage a remote team from an office in the heart of town
it’s to do so from a location that’s where you really want to be, so that the minute you take off the headset and put down the keyboard, you can splash into the surf or grab your rod and go fishing, or whatever your favorite recreation is.
If technology is supposed to make our lives more convenient and give us more leisure time, wouldn’t it be nice if it freed us from the twin shackles of the office desk and the daily commute?
The problem is that whether it’s a James Bond villain or a modern manufacturer, for most of recorded history, the traditional employment model has included geographical proximity, a physical closeness between supervisor and staff that facilitated communication and leadership.
It also makes a lot of sense when you’re manufacturing something.
Although there are exceptions, it’s generally most practical to make something from start to finish in the same place.
For instance, when I was HR director at a vitamin factory in New Jersey, everyone involved in the production of our product was on-site, more than a hundred miles from our company’s headquarters.
Our work was enhanced by the fact that everything was right there in one place.
We would blend the various ingredients that went into our vitamins and nutritional supplements in one room, then put them into capsule or tablet form in a neighboring room, and move them to a third room to package them in bottles. Sometimes we also put the bottles into boxes.
Having our compounding, encapsulation, and packaging departments in separate locations requiring the movement of product over significant distances would have made no sense at all, and would have driven up the cost of our product significantly.
In fact, as we grew and needed more space, we exhaustively studied all the alternatives and options available to us before we moved the packaging department to an adjacent building, because it required that product be transported over 25 yards of paved parking lot.
Proximity also enhanced our management capabilities. It was easy for anyone on the management team to get up and walk to any of the production areas to see what was going on.
We also maintained our own personnel records, and of course took care of our own workforce management, attendance tracking, vacation management, and other such tasks on our own
Before joining the leadership of the vitamin factory, I worked for a technical facility of a telecom company, also in New Jersey.
Although the company’s headquarters were in New York City and we were in New Jersey, the entire team necessary to fulfill our mission was on-site.
In addition to a crack team of engineers and other specialists, we also hosted a provisioning team and a customer service team.
Those teams could have operated in the NYC office, but it wasn’t large enough, so we hosted them – and they functioned perfectly well – because even though they were separated from the headquarters, they were all together and functioned well as a team.
The executives in charge of the facility visited the NYC headquarters from time to time, but by and large, they did most of their communication with HQ over the phone.
And of course we had a small cadre or support personnel, admin types and me – the HR guy.
I took care of the payroll as well as vacation management, attendance tracking, benefits management and other related entitlements.
So it would appear that the traditional way of doing things, including locating everyone on the team in the same space, has worked for quite a long time, right up to the present.
But wait! My first real job, with a non-profit headquartered in New York City, had a few dozen people in the headquarters, but hundreds more out in the field.
We were a labor union, and those of us in the office supported the activities of hundreds of thousands of members in thousands of local unions around the country.
Their main support, though, came from an army of business agents who worked essentially out of their cars; another large group of field staff was the organizers, who would help people form their own local unions.
The union’s business agents and organizers operated nationwide, and operated so far from their homes that they negotiated a specific policy into their union contract (yeah, union employees belong to unions themselves, and negotiate for the terms and conditions of their employment).
Anyway, the policy was that field staff were entitled to return home at least every other weekend, and if that was more than a few hours’ drive (I forget the exact figures), the union (in this case, the employer) would pay their airfare home, and back to the assignment Monday morning.
Working alone, in pairs, or in small groups, these people organized the workers of hundreds of clothing manufacturers and textile mills nationwide, including the powerful textile giant J.P. Stevens, in a struggle that was immortalized in the famous movie Norma Rae.
They worked as a team over a really far-flung territory, and for the millions of workers whose lives were improved by their efforts, their achievement was magnificent.
So How’d They Do It?
Union organizers are salespeople in a sense, but that’s only a small description of their jobs.
They meet with potential members to explain the benefits and drawbacks of union membership and try to persuade them to join, or at least to petition for an election among all the eligible workers in a facility.
Not surprisingly, most employers won’t permit organizers to enter their facilities to talk with workers. Instead, they meet individually with workers on lunch breaks and after hours and weekends, often in their homes with other family members present.
The fact that they couldn’t meet with potential members during the day was actually a good thing
though, because their work required a great deal of planning, research and coordination.
They spent an inordinate amount of time on the phone, and this was back in the 80s and 90s, before cellphones and smartphones, which meant they were using payphones or the phones in their motel rooms.
When they visited a union office for meetings, every minute between meetings was spent on the phone.
The people who managed these campaigns were also extremely busy.
One director tried to have an in-person staff meeting every other week, which meant that everyone had to go to his office in Atlanta, or that he’d travel to them.
He spent an incredible amount of time in small commuter aircraft, flying from one “general aviation” airport to the next, sometimes visiting with four teams in a single day.
What all this meant was that an unseemly amount of time and energy went into remote team management.
In addition to hefty communication and travel budgets, leading those remote teams called for superior management skills as well as a superior caliber of staff.
Despite all the meetings and phone calls, the fact remained that the organizing staff were by and large operating on their own, without immediate guidance or supervision.
This called for a serious work ethic on the part of the individual staff members as well as a strong bond of trust among everyone on the team.
The Times, They Are A’Changin’
The good news today is that communication and travel costs associated with remote team management are nowhere near what they were back then.
The not-so-good news is that all the advances in technology cannot eliminate the need for superior leadership . . . nor for reliable team members with excellent work ethics.
But let’s look at the good news first, because there’s a lot of it, and it really is good. First of all, remote staff are no longer shackled to hardwired telephones.
Instead, today’s remote workers can use their smartphones or other mobile devices to communicate while they’re in the office, or on the road, or having lunch, or even while on, say, Ipanema Beach.
But no matter how advanced telephony has become, it still falls short of in-person collaboration on a project
Some additional high tech advancements help in that area. For example, when I was still working for the union, we bought a popular device that was meant to allow a group of people in a room participate in a call.
Triangular in shape, it had several speakers and at least one very sensitive microphone. It often worked well, but then again, sometimes it wouldn’t work so well.
I especially recall that when we sat it in the middle of the conference table, you couldn’t touch the table because the microphone was very sensitive – if you put down your coffee cup, for instance, the sound was magnified at the other end of the call and could override whatever the speaker was saying.
We were all very glad when that particular feature was fixed, and these devices are still very popular for beringing together groups of people over the phone.
Videoconferencing is another communication area that’s grown by leaps and bounds, especially recently. Not that long ago – in the 90s, when I worked for a telecom – I interviewed a technical guy.
The person he was going to report to (if hired) worked in an office in New York City, and came out to New Jersey once a week or so.
The supervisor and I thought it would be cool if we conducted the interview together – the candidate and I in the conference room, and the supervisor participating via the extensive and costly videoconferencing setup we’d installed in the conference room.
We’d save time, and impress the candidate with the quality of our equipment and technical expertise.
The fellow arrived on time and we spent a few moments in my office, going over some administrative details and filling out some paperwork.
Then we went into the conference room. Our techs had doublechecked the equipment earlier, and assured me that all I had to do was turn it on and dial the supervisor’s number in NYC.
The setup worked beautifully for about 30 seconds, and then the video portion froze and the audio got choppy. We wound up conducting the interview via a conference call placed from a landline.
The fellow ultimately went to work for another telecom.
Videoconferencing technology has become much more reliable in the time since that interview
and those who manage remote teams often employ it as a crucial component of the communication strategy.
Online services like Skype give users an extremely affordable way to videoconference one-on-one using VOIP technology and their own computer or mobile device.
The variety of mobile devices available today enhances any team’s communication strategy. Gone are the days of trying to focus a videoconferencing camera on a flip chart or blackboard.
Got a spreadsheet you want to work on with a colleague a thousand miles away? Upload it into the cloud and you can both access it and discuss it.
The same goes for code, graphics, music or written work. Indeed, if it can be put on paper, it can be stored in a computer file and developed collaboratively by people thousands of miles apart from each other.
Modern technology has enhanced the tools we use to accomplish our work, and has made it easier to work remotely. However, it hasn’t developed a substitute for the human skills necessary for managers and team members.
Key Elements in Remote Team Management
According to this IBM white paper, when you manage a remote team, only 10 percent of your problems will concern utilization of technology. The rest – a full 90 percent – will be people problems. Let’s look at how to avoid them if we can.
Have I mentioned a superior work ethic? Because that’s one of the most crucial elements required to make a team work well when its members are spread out all over the place.
People who work from their homes, a downtown coffeeshop, the beach or a cabin in the woods all need to have the motivation to attend to their work when it’s necessary, whether they work on an hourly basis or project-by-project.
And your team members can’t be the kind of workers who do the bare minimum necessary to get by, they’ve got to seek out excellence. A merely adequate team won’t cut it when you add the challenges of remote work.
Once you have the right people on your team, schedule regular working hours, times
when they should be working and available for consultation with their teammates. If people are working in different time zones, you may want to let them work their own normal business hours as long as there’s a reasonable overlap with others; in extreme cases, though, you may need to require that far-flung team members accommodate your schedule.
You can see where this is going: in order for a remote team to be successful, it’s got to have a well-defined and clearly understood structure.
Communications are also vital. First, think of how you communicate in an office setting – tap a colleague on the shoulder in the hallway, meet in the breakroom or by the water cooler, or just sit down at a colleague’s desk and start talking.
Then there are the more formal communications, the scheduled meetings in a leader’s office or a conference room.
All of these now can be replicated online, but they lack the immediacy of face-to-face communication. That doesn’t mean they can’t work, just that you’ve got to try harder to make them work.
Schedule regular group meetings with agendas and make sure that everyone always can get in touch with everyone else.
In addition, set up reporting systems – who to go to for what, with yourself as the escalation point.
And if you’re also outside the head office, set up a regular call to your boss so each of you can keep the other in the loop on important issues.
Also, decide on the software that you’ll use for your various communication and other administrative needs, and then make sure that everyone’s got the same version and is properly trained on its use.
Rules are also very important when the group is split up. Establish rules for how decisions are made, and make sure you’ve got a backup plan when the main decision-maker is unavailable.
You should also consider conflict resolution, as well as conflict avoidance.
Teams work well when everyone is confident that the workload is fairly distributed.
This is a reason for making assignments public, whether the team’s on-site or remote.
Keeping assignments confidential stifles the collaborative process. In addition, everyone on the team should know what’s expected of them and when — or in more technical business-speak, distribute goals, roles and responsibilities.
An option that many organizations turn to for their remote teams is remote workstations or offices in in facilities established for that purpose.
Companies and individual entrepreneurs rent space in these facilities by the hour, day, or week – sometimes an office, sometimes a conference room, and sometimes a suite with a secretary – it’s all based on need.
You may benefit from such an arrangement with one or more members of your team, or rent a conference room for a day or two to get everyone together.
The advantage of remote workstations is that they provide an office-type environment and if they’re used by multiple team members, it gives them the opportunity to collaborate face-to-face together even though they are remote.
Uh-Oh – Is Someone Having Second Thoughts?
For some, the bloom is already off the rose when it comes to remote workforces. Even as some commentators gush about the growing population of remote workers and the implications for tomorrow’s workforce, some companies are beginning to rein in their remote teams.
Yahoo, for instance, employed hundreds of work-from-home employees throughout much of its history,
but in early 2013, newly-appointed CEO Marissa Mayer announced that henceforth, all Yahoo employees would have to work from a Yahoo office.
The move immediately sparked controversy, with supporters insisting that a high-tech company needs the kind of imagination and creativity generated when people work closely together, and detractors claiming that perhaps Yahoo wasn’t up to the task of managing a remote workforce.
However, with the search for talent becoming more and more a global endeavor rather than local or regional, companies are going to have to learn how to manage workforces that include people who live in town, in the suburbs, and in India.
Some companies may grow so much that no matter where they hire, there’s always an office nearby for them to work in.
Others, though, will hone up on their management skills and learn to manage remote staff.
And still others – like labor unions, for example – will continue managing their remote workforces and employing technological advances as they come along, grateful for the significant savings in time and money they deliver.