Leading a (Virtual) Team

Leading a team has been the most challenging, and the most fun, part of my job. At times I’ve had team members not actually in the same room as me – or even the same country, that makes it more challenging but the principles of managing a team remain the same. Here’s my take on it.

There’s a lot of discussion about working remotely particularly as Yahoo and IBM removed that option for their employees, however there’s research out there indicating that remote teams can be as productive or even more productive than co-located workers.

I’ve had remote workers in three different set-ups;

  •  remote, working from another location including one in another country (with a different time zone)
  • regular, working from home 1-2 days per week
  • occasional, working from a different location for an occasional short period, for one colleague it allowed him to be in Spain for the bachelor party and the wedding of his closest friend.

In all three cases there were good business reasons for the person’s choice of work pattern, and I always had a team who were mostly in the office together. In the case of the person working at home 1-2 days per week it saved a rather long commute.

In leading my teams I’ve always tried to provide; a clear purpose, clear work assignments, regular progress evaluations, a good relationship with me as the manager and a connection to the rest of the team.

Team in the Room Remote Team
A Clear Purpose -annual/quarterly conversation for whole team to discuss team purpose -annual/quarterly conversation for whole team to discuss team purpose
Clear Work Assignments -annual performance review sets high level deliverables
-project design sets short term deliverables
-annual performance review sets high level deliverables
-project design sets short term deliverables
-rolling email tally of tasks and progress
Evaluate Progress -1 on 1 meetings each week (or two weeks)
-publish project progress
-1 on 1 calls each week (or two weeks)
-publish project progress
Relationship with a Manager -1 on 1 meetings each week (or two weeks)  -1 on 1 call
-daily chat on messenger
Connection to Team -Bad music Friday
-Friday team lunch
-Team events
-virtual “watercooler”
-project with team
-bring remote worker into team events

As you can see it’s not much different to manage a remote worker, but as a manager, I needed to document things in more detail because I wasn’t seeing them each day, and I had to make a specific effort to have a chat for a social purpose, the chat could go into work territory but typically began with a mention of coffee.

HBR did some research into how to make virtual teams work that backs up my empirical conclusions, particularly the idea of having regular contact across the team and between team the manager and the remote colleague. Unsurprisingly communication is the key to making it work.

Personally, I like having the option of working remotely, it allows me to really focus on an assignment. It can also be convenient if I have a mid-day appointment. I know that the flexibility is appreciated by team members. I haven’t seen any change in the productivity of any individual.  As a manager I wouldn’t want to manage a team where everyone worked remotely all of the time. At some point it would be hard to maintain the connection with each team member and across the team. But with a team of motivated professionals the option to work remotely is positive for the team members and the team.

Image:  Teamwork  |  ThoroughlyReviewed  |   CC BY 2.0

Form a SWAT team

When I first heard this term it was in a movie or a TV programme. I understood from the context that it was a specially trained team, but I didn’t stop to ask what it stood for; according to wikipedia it’s “Special Weapons and Tactics”.

The term seems to have crept into business language, and taken on the meaning of a special project team brought in to solve an urgent problem. They generally have a a single focus to solve the problem and a stronger mandate to get things done. Which does make we wonder; why not just give the existing team the power to solve the problem in the first place – perhaps before it even became a problem.

Often the existing team has no capacity to address a big new issue, or they may lack the knowledge to make a change. Here’s Obama talking at this year’s SXSW about making government more digital, he put in place a “Digital SWAT Team” to make this happen (from about 9.30 to 15.00).

In this case it’s clear that the knowledge brought into the US government services was able to address the problems of legacy systems, and outdated knowledge. They had the mandate to act, supported by the most powerful person in the country – of course they could get stuff done.

Image: S.W.A.T. via pixabay