Depending on the job and the industry, finding that perfect mix of attitude and skill in a candidate can be daunting. After you’ve sorted through stacks of CVs and conducted rounds of interviews, the last thing you want to happen is for distance to become an issue.
In the past, managers have had the luxury of overseeing employees who are always in close proximity to each other – down the hall, around the corner or even sitting at the next desk. But this way of working is no longer sustainable. Talent gaps are one reason, and employers sometimes need to fill positions when demand outpaces local supply. But more broadly speaking, removing location as a limiting factor gives organisations more freedom to hire the best and brightest, diversify their workforce and remain relevant in a volatile and agile economy.
The three biggest barriers to why more workplaces don’t make the most of virtual teams comes down to structure, culture and mindset, writes Cassandra Frangos, vice president for global talent and organisational development at Cisco. In an article for the Harvard Business Review, Frangos says that despite more organisations accepting the idea of virtual teams, the reality is many still adhere to old-school “tied to the terminal” employment practices.
A top-down hierarchy is the biggest structural barrier, she argues, because rather than rely on decisions from small, autonomous teams, everything has to filter from one to many. This is often combined with persistent ideas about symbols of productivity and control in the workplace that are hard to shake.
YOU’VE DONE THIS BEFORE
Managing a distributed team can feel overwhelming, mostly because there’s more than physical distance to contend with, says Mark Mortensen, an associate professor of organisational behaviour at INSEAD.
One of the biggest misconceptions about managing remote workers is that it requires an entirely different skillset. But a growing body of research and real-world examples are exposing the unique dynamics found among virtual and remote teams, and sussing out what makes them tick. Many of the same management and leadership principles apply. A global team is first and foremost a team, Mortenson says.
“We have a tendency to overcompensate and approach remote workers and virtual teams as these mythical beasts,” he says. “But they are still people working in an organisation to get stuff done – treat them as such.”
TIPS FOR MANAGING ACROSS DISTANCE
If you are cutting your teeth on leading a virtual team, remember the first rule of trying anything new: don’t panic. The same basic rules apply to other typical business situations, with a few unique twists and exceptions. How can you master managing the distributed team? Here are some good starting points:
- Invest in relationships: Distance – geographical, temporal and cultural/linguistic – affects how we work through two main contexts: how we feel about people, and what we know about people. According to a study published in Organization Science, a shared sense of context – understanding how you do what you do and why – is a key driver of a team’s ability to coordinate and collaborate. This comes from sharing information and purpose, which means leaders need to facilitate not just a virtual workplace, but a virtual community.
- Do regular logistics and tech checks: Setting people up to succeed off-site requires attention to IT support and infrastructure, Frangos says. This includes making sure all team members are comfortable using online collaboration tools and the tech works from anywhere, on any device. Security should also be taken seriously, and employees need to be educated about proper safety protocols.
- Schedule regular meetings: A hands-off approach won’t cut it when managing a remote team. To help manage the team’s workload and expectations, check in with individual employees on a regular basis. Technology allows for instant communication, regardless of time or place. Just as managers and employees in brick and mortar offices have performance reviews, catch-ups and and all the trimmings, so should virtual teams.
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