TFYW#086: Fool Proof Management For Remote Teams

May 3, 2024

If you are struggling with managing remote teams, you’re not alone.

Remote teams are not going away. In fact, most firms will need remote or hybrid teams to thrive in the future.

Remote Team Woes

My first experience with remote teams was back in 2013.

I was working on the Transaction Support team at EY, and we had a fulfilment team in India.

We were working late on a project due to poor project management and overall communication.

To get back on course, I arranged a call with the Indian manager just after midnight.

The country code to call India is +91.

Exhausted, I dialed 9 to leave the office’s internal network and then hit 91, followed by another 1 and a few other numbers.

I was immediately connected to local 911 emergency services.

Completely caught off guard, I fumbled through an explanation of why I accidentally dialled 911.

I must have sounded like I was being held captive because the dispatch insisted that two officers visit my location to ensure there were no issues.

I spent the next hour waiting for the police, letting them in the building, and walking them around the three floors EY occupied of the tower.

I never got a hold of the Indian team that night.

The next morning, my wife stared blankly at me while I detailed getting home at 2 am because I had accidentally called the cops.

My only explanation to her was that working with a remote team was hard.

Remote Team Breakdowns

I have managed and worked on remote teams for the last decade.

The teams were/are comprised of members from the same city and worldwide.

I’ve found that there are three main triggers when it comes to management breakdown.

These aren’t different from managing teams in general, but remote teams offer significantly less margin for error.

Expectations + Assumptions

There is a quote that hits hard every time.

Unclear or unspoken expectations cause a large portion of disruptions to teams.

The disruption is easily amplified for remote teams with different time zones and cultures.

Many issues blow up not because of what happened but because of what we thought should have happened.

And when expectations aren’t clear, the probability of what happens and what we think will happen edges near 0%

I used to think that detailed instructions could replace clear expectations.

And in most simple cases, good instructions can.

But expectations fill the gray space around the black-and-white instructions. Instructions cannot cover every situation or task.

As delegated responsibilities increase (i.e. you remove yourself from every decision), instructions become less important.

For growing firms, it will be impossible to create instructions for everything. You must rely on clear expectations.

A quick expectation checklist to keep handy includes:

  1. Timeline – Milestones and deadlines
  2. Champion for the project – Who makes the final call?
  3. Creation and Delivery format – Who are the end users, and how will it be used?
  4. Use prior examples, if available – What previous deliverables and tasks can be leveraged?
  5. If anything unexpected happens, who is contacted first – Who is supporting the work?
  6. What does the final deliverable look like, and where will it be stored?

Systems

First and foremost, if you manage time instead of tasks and deadlines, remote teams will always create uncertainty.

It’s impossible to verify how many hours remote teams work. So the question will always hang in the air: “Did they actually work those eight hours?’

When you try to track unverifiable hours, you create asymmetrical information – you become dependent on the employee’s word.

You get stuck trusting how the team members spend their time instead of moving the work forward and supporting them when they need help.

To remove the asymmetrical information, your system must create visibility for independently verifiable metrics: Tasks and Deadlines.

To do this, you must understand the value of the work assigned to your team and track everything based on that.

Sidenote:  Fixed billing is difficult for diversified service offerings. If you don’t know what costs are required to generate revenue, fixed pricing doesn’t make sense.

I create a Fixed Cost Model to help firms look at how standardized services can be assigned based on value, instead of tracking time.

The model won’t replace a practice management tool, but it gives the first step to moving away from managing by timesheets.

When you and the team know what they are accountable for, and both parties can verify whether or not it was done, team management focuses on the right objectives.

Environment

Effective team management comes down to ensuring that things are getting done completely on the correct timelines.

This process breaks down when the front-line team members don’t relay unexpected information fast or thoroughly enough to management so adjustments can be made.

Even the best communication tools are rendered useless if team members don’t feel supported and heard.

In a remote environment, it’s easier for managers to get caught only giving directions.

Remote teams have reduced proximity to ask questions quickly. Remote questions often require more effort: screenshots or explainer videos.

 

If you don’t remember anything else from this newsletter, remember this:

 

Effective team management is proportional to the flow of information from manager to the team AND teams to managers. 

 

If there isn’t frequent back and forth between teams and managers, time gets wasted, tasks are done poorly, and morale drops off.

To get more and better info flowing from teams,

  • Be interested in the individual, not just their role as an employee. If you want them to care about what they do, make sure they know you care about them.
  • Solicit feedback from them frequently. The simple question ‘What do you think we should do?” goes a long way to better management environments.
  • When tasks or projects go sideways, drill down on the process before accusing the team member. Scrutinize the process, not the people.
  • Schedule mentoring sessions for your team. Your teams need context as to why they should continue to invest in your firm by working for you.

Remote team management requires conscientious ways to give AND get feedback.

Cultivating an open environment cannot be overlooked.

That’s it for this week. Good luck with your remote teams.

Build the firm you want.

Mark

P.S. Email Mark@FirmNexus.com with something that you want me to talk about. I’ll add it to the list. 

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