Managing remote workers is not the same as remotely managing workers

I once asked a manager (one who managed a remote team) what were some of the challenges in managing the team.

Boss With Remote Control And Androids

The quick answer I got back was that there were no unusual challenges, that managing a remote team is the same as managing folks in the office.

We went on with the conversation, but of course I didn’t believe the answer. There are challenges to any sort of work environment, and the challenges of working effectively with folks who you don’t actually see every day can be pretty significant.

In other words:

Managing remote workers is not the same as remotely managing workers.

It’s just not – you can’t apply the same processes, skills, and expectations to a team of virtual employees. In some ways it’s better, and in some ways it’s worse than having a team on-site.

That all depends on:

  • The team
  • The people
  • The manager
  • How the work is defined
  • and, The tools which are available to do the work

No matter what, it’s going to be different. And you’ll have to get used to it – both as a manager and as an employee.

What about the team?

The team needs to be awesome at communicating.

The people need to be social.

They need to…

  • … enjoy sharing information.
  • … and, they need to be focused on ensuring that everybody is getting what they need to work effectively.

Ev-er-y-bo-dy. Even the new guy. 🙂

You might say that all those things are also necessary when everyone is on-site, and you’d be right (sort of). But you need it all three times over when you’re not getting face-to-face interaction.

You need a great network of communicators.

What about the manager?

The manager needs to have experience doing it this way, and needs to understand what works well.

e.g., there’s a chance for folks to work very effectively without distractions when needed.

And what doesn’t work well.

e.g., a team member might work very effectively all day on a goal that was misunderstood, simply because he didn’t hear you chatting with Tommy in the other cubicle about what the new direction was for the project.

So the manager needs to tune into all the things that are:

  • Going well
  • Are not going well
  • And which things have a chance to go better than usual simply because remote work environments have certain advantages that office environments will never have.

You need great management.

What about the work?

In a typical cubicle environment, a lot of the work gets defined and communicated via hallway conversations and stuff you overheard while sitting at your desk.

Yeah, stuff also gets written down, but documents (ahem!) have a way of becoming obsolete as soon as they are written and replaced with updated ideas that never get recorded anyway other than getting written into the product. 😉

That won’t work remotely.

You need to document the work, and you need to acknowledge that the documentation is going to change not just often, but constantly. You know it’s going to but you still don’t really truly embrace that reality.

Everybody needs to be responsible (and good at) continually updating the common understanding that the group has about the work. (See “Network of communicators” above.)

And yes, these are also valuable skills for an on-site team, but it’s only when you are working remotely that you are actually forced to do these things.

Whatever habits you may have learned about project updates while working in an office might actually start to hurt you once you try to use the same habits from a remote workspace.

The work needs to be well-defined. All the time.

What about the tools?

Again, great tools are needed for workers whether they are on-site or remote…

… but…

… it’s only when everybody is remote that the issue of “tools problems” becomes so severe that it is forced to be resolved.

We’re living in a groovy time – a time when great tools are both greater than ever and more widely available than ever. 🙂

A remote team needs to know how to constantly identify the best tools to be using, and how to make them work effectively with whatever other stuff is already being used.

You need a bunch of tools nerds.

See, it’s similar but pretty different

There are lots of challenges that come up when you decide to start working flexibly as a core business process. The rewards can be absolutely awesome – both for the team and for the business, but everyone’s got to go into it with both eyes open.

Remember what it’s like to work and operate with both eyes open?

What do you think?

Have you done it?

How did it go?