Seven fallacies about managing virtual/remote teams

OPINION

Annette Dow

See also: Working remotely - can it work?

Worldwide more and more organisations are moving away from traditional, co-located work environments and we are no different in New Zealand. Embracing the concept of remote working can bring many advantages to an organisation.

It can result in cost-savings and open up a wider pool of talent from which to choose. It can bring the benefit of having local representation. It supports preferences of "millennials" and much has been written about the observed increase in worker satisfaction and performance when based remotely. All of which is pretty enticing.

But it is not without challenges. Whether it is someone sitting two miles down the road or halfway around the world, the issues remain the same when adding remote workers to the mix or totally switching to a remote environment.

What we see with many organisations making this shift is that they don’t prepare for it. Neither do they understand the reality and implications of the myriad of challenges that such an environment presents.

Fallacy One: One can simply move an effective co-located manager to manage remote personnel and all will be well.
Wrong! Firstly, Managers may experience a need to micro-manage as they adjust to the new environment. Secondly, they will need to use a wider range of management styles. Thirdly, they need to learn to do things differently and to utilise new technology if they are to be effective. Organisations have a responsibility to re-train their managers. And, the fact is, some managers cannot make the shift.

Fallacy Two: Your costs are going to immediately drop.
This is unlikely. You are going to have to invest in establishing a new infrastructure. Team members will need computers, phone systems, new communication and networking tools – all of which must be secure, with built-in redundancy.  Expenses for phone and internet access may remain. You may be expected to contribute to electricity costs of the remote worker. If you are going “the whole hog,” then certainly, you will not have to pay for rental space but some initial investment will be required at the very least.

Fallacy Three: You can recruit for the same skill-sets in your remote workers as for your co-located workers.
Typically in a co-located environment we focus on functional skills. Go remote and you are adding the need for a wide range of additional or more advanced skills. For example, written communication skills become much more critical. The ability to deal with social isolation can be a game-changer. Time, self-management and self-motivation are key skills that one must look for in remote personnel.

Fallacy Four:  Everyone is going to enjoy and work well in a remote environment.
The reality is that some do not adjust to working remotely. Successful adaptation can depend on a wide range of factors such as personality types, need for face-to-face social interaction and relationships, ability to self-manage, manager styles and needs, as well as how the remote team is organised.  And there will be the odd person who takes advantage of being remote and not in a positive way.

Fallacy Five: The success of a remote team relies mostly on technology.
Yes, one does have to use and rely on a range of technologies to make this happen, but success requires more than that. Technology is simply one of the factors– it is not the answer. How a remote team functions remains largely dependent on the humans involved – the amount of trust, collaboration and knowledge-sharing that exists has far greater impact on the success of a remote team.

Fallacy Six: You do not need to pay as much attention to team and relationship-building with a remote team.
Frankly, we see this as more important in a remote environment than in a co-located one, where a certain amount can happen naturally. Achieving a unified team with strong, positive relationships is much more difficult in remote environments but absolutely critical and, in our opinion, comes down to the manager. They must ensure, for example, that induction and "on-boarding" happen appropriately, that the team has social as well as task-focused time together, that they get to know, trust and appreciate each other and that they understand how each contributes to the organisation.

Fallacy Seven: The organisation can simply continue with its co-located policies, procedures, practices and expectations when adding or moving to a remote environment.
Good luck with that! The fact is that life has just changed ... and simply doing everything the “old” way will not address all the additional and changed needs associated with a remote environment. There is a high chance that you and your people will fail if you do not stop and get to grips with the required infrastructure, the demands on your managers and leaders, the essential changes in how you operate and what you need to look for in new partners, contractors or team members.

There are real advantages to adding or moving to remote environments but, for it to work, there is a great deal of planning, preparation and ongoing maintenance to be done.

Annette Dow of training company Binary Resource is running series of seminars and workshops in city centres around New Zealand from February to May on “Building & Maintaining your Remotely-based Work Environment and Teams” and “The Long Distance Manager” and “The Remote Worker.”

To find out more visit www.binaryresource.com/training

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