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Engaging Remote Team Members

February 4, 2015

Appointment Request:
WHAT: Roland’s birthday lunch
WHEN: Thursday at noons
WHERE: Dickey’s Barbecue Pit, 2592 S 5600 W Salt Lake City

It’s Roland’s birthday. Come join us for lunch and make fun of him for turning 50 this year.

My team does some fun activities. My manager tries to hold occasionally events that help us come together as a team.

There was just one problem with this event.

Appointment Declined
FROM: Alex

That will be 3:00 AM here in the Philippines and Google maps tells me that I need a boat to get there.

Our “team” is scattered all over the world. How do you manage a remote team? How do you ensure that everyone is engaged? How do you ensure that people are working on the right tasks when you cannot walk by their office and say “hi”?

First, let’s talk about the wrong way to do it. Jeffery worked for me as a programmer one summer. He described his former working arrangement, where the programmers had all been working from home.

They monitored a lot, but it was the wrong things. They checked what time you logged into the server. They monitored traffic over the VPN and if traffic to your location slowed down, they would check to make sure you were working. Eventually they attempted to install key tracking software so they could see every key we pressed. We told them we’d quit if they didn’t take it off.

There was very little trust between management and the programmers at his company. And a lack of trust breeds distrust.

There’s a better way.

Rather than tell people how to do their jobs, tell them what you want accomplished. I’ve found that every time I attempt to tell my technical teams how to do something, they invariably find a better way than my suggestion. I’ve learned to tell them what I want accomplished and then let them figure it out. It’s a great solutions for two reasons.

First, I get better solutions. I always want to hire people smarter than me. I want the programmers, or engineers that I work with to be the very best in their field. Or at least, the best I can afford. And smart people come up with smart solutions.

Second, it makes my life SO much easier. I don’t have to be an expert on databases, or Java, or HTTP communication. I can hand the task off to the engineers and developers and let them work it.

But, you might be saying, “How do I know that they aren’t wasting time when I’m not around?”

I have to trust them. But, the funny thing is, if I structure their tasks to be results driven, I don’t have to worry what they are doing at any particular time. I just need to know that they will have their project done on time.

Ah, but what what if they could complete the task in 6 hours, and then they waste the other 2 hours?

I don’t care.

It sounds strange, but I have to justify a position by the results I get from it. If a programmer is writing good code and completing her assignments on time, I don’t really care how long that took. Now, as a manager, I need to know what are reasonable tasks. But, I will never learn that from a spreadsheet, Instead I need to talk to my team. I need to understand what they are doing and how long they expect it to take.

Management by Metric looks good on paper, and it’s easy. Print out your reports and reduce everyone’s job to a series of numbers. If the numbers are below a set amount, then execute remedial action.

Or, just talk to your team.

And that’s the beauty of a remote team. You can IM, you can email, you can schedule regular phone or Skype interviews to find out what they are working on and any challenges they are having.

Working remotely is becoming more common in our interconnected society. Teams are no longer defined by geography. The internet and high speed access means that team members can live anywhere.

So, talk to your team. And maybe send them a picture of the birthday cake.

Rodney M Bliss is an author, columnist and IT Consultant. His blog updates every weekday at 7:00 AM Mountain Time. He lives in Pleasant Grove, UT with his lovely wife, thirteen children and one grandchild.

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From → Team Building

  1. Nataria permalink

    There are actually decent remote team management platforms now and some are free/near-free (Bitrix24 or Mango, for example). The essential part of remote team management is that you share the same virtual workspace IMHO. Never to for “I’ll use Skype for talking and Dropbox for file sharing and Basecamp for task management”. Unified collaboration does miracles.

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