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How to effectively manage remote, distributed teams

Manage remote teams effectively
Better technology and connectivity has given rise to many trends and it can now change the way companies – and their employees – work. Working remotely has become an increasingly accepted solution, and it can be quite a successful strategy.

Are people really doing it?

According to a study done by Connect Solutions (1), who surveyed 202 employees across a number of industries, 32% of respondents worked remotely at least some-time, and 27% have done it full-time. Similarly, according to a study (2) conducted with IBM employees, 42% work remotely at least part of the time, and 15% work solely from home. The rise of distributed teams in the globalized economy is also cause to search for better remote teams management techniques.

The case for building a remote or distributed workforce

  • Productivity Gains
    Connect Solutions survey showed that the workers’ productivity actually increased while working remotely (less time at the water cooler?), and it helped employees accumulate additional savings (such as on gas for commuting) and improve their life in general. And with unified communications, workers actually feel that they are well connected to the rest of their team.
  • Global footprint & access to talent
    In today’s global economy the proliferation of a distributed workforce is growing everyday, as business seek to access new markets and talent. It is much easier to start work with a partner or create a project team in a different location than it was before. And current communication tools help keep communication, objectives and deadlines aligned. As long as they can keep their remote teams managed, this is great news for companies who need specialized talent but cannot find it locally.
  • Cost Savings
    Cost savings can also be incurred by employers themselves. Having a distributed workforce can help businesses achieve operational cost savings of as much as 40-50% (with less real estate, less energy use and maintenance, etc.) (3). Overall employers also benefit from establishing remote teams – not only can they accrue operational savings, but they will also benefit from increased employee productivity.

Communicating with remote teamsRemote team management

There are important management strategies to implement for a distributed workforce program to be successful. Common challenges managing remote teams include keeping workers connected and visible, and training employees to strike a successful work-life balance.

1. Visibility & Management

  • Promote project team’s achievements. Remote and distributed teams want to feel like they are part of the company and that their contributions matter. Promoting their achievements can help prevent isolation, and promoting achievements of teams from other locations will help motivate employees and cultivate more pride and loyalty for the company.
  • Keep commitments. Both parties need to build trust, and accountability is a key component of trust. Keeping commitments, such as teleconferencing on-time, makes building a strong relationship easier.
  • Make goals clear. Clear objectives help everyone work towards the same goal. Plus, it helps keep employees motivated.
  • Build relationships. Relationship building (4) is vital to creating meaningful relationships when building a remote team. Visionary and transformative leadership often helps motivate the same level of engagement in the remote workforce as with the traditional workforce.
  • 2. Communication:

  • Always on. First and foremost managers and employees must always be connected and available. If either party does not actively respond, it becomes harder to be motivated and can erode some of the trust in the relationship.
  • Once a year face-to-face meetings. Some companies have implemented mandatory annual meetings for their remote teams. Remote workers have found this to be particularly helpful and enjoyable experience as it provides them with a deeper connection to their colleagues.
  • Use technology for informal conversations. When leading remote teams, managers are responsible for recreating the informal professional atmosphere that a physical space would otherwise provide. This benefits both employees and employers by building trust and making communication open and light.
  • Short but frequent contact. Motivating remote teams is much more manageable with frequent contact. Remote employees are more likely to be motivated and committed to the team’s goals with short, but constant contact.
  • Tips for getting started:

    • Implement remote strategy from the very top. Implementing a remote or distributed team program must be a strategic decision. Everyone in the company should know about the program and understand what outcomes they should expect. If there are no expected outcomes, it might lead to more misunderstanding and inefficient use of resources.
    • Managers need to adjust communication strategies. Communication is critical in a distributed team situation. Managers need to know what language to use to be understood, and use different channels for communication (from chat, to e-mail to videoconferencing). They also need to be very explicit in their expectations for what they want their remote employees to achieve.
    • Train managers and remote employees. There will be an adjustment period for both managers and remote employees as they learn how to communicate effectively and work towards the same goals. Providing training early on will ease that transition.

    How do you manage remote employees? What’s your best success story?

    (1) Connect Solutions. 2013.
    (2) Mulki et al. MIT Sloan Review. 2009.
    (3) The Future of Work. 2010.
    (4) Kirsten Sundin. Cornell University. 2010.

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