Building Remote Teams (1) – Leading

This post covers:

  • Why you should consider having a remote team
  • Styles of leading a remote team and their pitfalls
  • How the style of leading impacts hiring choices

While it is complex to foster vision alignment and teamwork in an office where several team members work together towards a certain vision, it is even more complex and interesting to do so with a remote team, or a remote team that works with an onsite team (a hybrid if you will). I have had the opportunity of working with remote teams for close to four years now. Both as a team member, and as a leader. Even though I’m still in the process of mastery, there are quite a few experiences I have had around what could be done right, what could go wrong and how various risks and challenges could be surmounted. To be totally transparent, it is a constant learning process for me, and there is a new challenge to handle every passing day. However, this series of posts (leading, hiring and operating) will cover the basics around making it happen in the first instance and threading in the right direction while scaling out the team, without  making mistakes that could cost you the whole team, or a significant amount of productivity.

First, the question arises, if it is so complex to build out a remote team, why do so? Better still, why choose to hire people who will work from a distance if you can hire people locally to come in to the office and do the same job while you watch them? The answer to that is two-fold.

  • Most importantly, we are in the age of the 21st century worker. We have a wealth of highly skilled talent available in our local environments but much more importantly, we have a wealth of highly skilled talent available for almost any job role all over the world who are accessible to us via the internet. While you might have a talent pool of 500,000 people locally who could get work done, there are other dynamics such as a multitude of other companies that are fishing in the same pond as you are, different personalities and attitudes to work that might not exactly fit with the culture you are fostering within your organization and the cost of hiring such talent when the supply is limited (this specifically applies to organizations with a budget, that have been challenged to getting work done in a given rate or timeframe – limited resources if you will.) Considering the possibility of acquiring talent remotely could open up the talent pool x10 at least (from 500,000 to 5,000,000 in this case.) What this means is more supply, choices, and for those of us who are economics nuts, lower costs = more resources for less when you are on a budget. Moreso, office space costs quite a lot. Go figure.
  • Secondly, because A-player talent is A-player talent, regardless of where they are in the world. We are all familiar with the idea of building a winning team; find people who have the capabilities needed to win, people who know the game plan, people who know how to use their capabilities to yield outstanding outcomes and people who everyone else will have fun working with.

I chose an approach to writing this series of posts. We’ll talk about Leading – how we intend to lead the team, which will lead us to Hiring – how we intend to find people who fit the profile we want to lead, and Operating – the basics of teeing the remote team up for success.

When you are trying to get some work done, and are thinking about building a remote team to get the work done, there are two approaches to leading the team.

  • The Popular (I seriously struggled with calling this “The Lazy”) – Define the capabilities you need to get the work done, document the processes to the minutest details, find people to do the job, provide them with the tools they need and micro-manage them to ensure they are doing things exactly the way you have defined.
  • The Rare (I would have called this “The Effective”, but I am biased) – Define the capabilities you need to get the work done, define and clarify the goals, objectives, milestones and timelines, find people to do the job, provide them with the tools they need and give them the creative freedom to get it done as they will, then manage the outcomes.

What are the gotchas?

  • The Popular – Can I hear managerial overhead and limited opportunities to scale? There are certain structured job roles, that require persistent presence at a particular time, and could need some administrative presence to oversee the availability of resources at that time. A good example is, on a live chat technical support team. We know x amount of people should be available between xam to xpm, so we need some administrative presence to ensure those x amount of people are available during that time and doing their best work. However, not all job roles are that way. If the role you are filling is not that way, with a defined end goal and a set timeframe, setup a 15 minute to 1 hour standup meeting daily and let them loose. People do better work when they are not under shackles. That said, this gives you much more clarity into ensuring the work gets done, and it gets done right. Also, this ensures you keep a real-time pulse on exactly what the outcomes are going to look like. This also means, they are executing your approach to reaching a goal or solving a problem. You’d better be darn sure that your approach is the right approach.
  • The Rare – This frees you, or the organization to utilize resources on more strategic or innovative initiatives than making sure everyone is doing their work from 8am to 5pm daily. What does this also mean? That if you hire the right people, you can scale the team cost effectively due to minimal managerial overhead. But the key phrase here is, “if you hire the right people”. This arguably gets more difficult to ascertain over a distance. Among other things, integrity and self-motivation are two features that set an individual up for success while working remotely apart from the sheer capability to get the work done, which should be assessed in a typical recruitment process, we will discuss this in more detail under hiring. It is a good idea to see if they have done it before, what their experience was, if possible, speak to their former or current employers and co-workers on the candidate’s abilities and work ethic, and how they line up with your organization and the work you need to get done. The problem here is the exact opposite of the benefit of “The Popular”. You might not have a 100% visual into how things are progressing day-by-day towards achieving your set goals or reaching your targets. However, you need to be okay with this. You need to hire people who you can be confident will manage and motivate themselves towards reaching the goals or achieving the objectives. A good workaround to this is setting short, aggressive milestones that enable you course-correct at a reasonable cost if things appear to be veering off track at some point. On the flip side, you hire talent and you make maximum utility of your talent because they help you think through better ways to approach the goal, or the problem you are trying to solve. Some call it different perspectives. Eventually, you have a better rounded solution and execution plan. This lends itself better dividends on teams working towards more creative or innovative outcomes.

The next two posts will cover Hiring and Operating remote teams. Thoughts? Ideas? Suggestions? Comment below.

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