Lessons Learned Managing Remote Teams: Organizing the Team for Success

Criterion | Careers

Lessons Learned Managing Remote Teams: Organizing the Team for Success

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By Kathy Wallace, Program Manager, PMP

In 2010, I had my first experience managing remote teams. While I had significant experience leading on-site programs, I honestly had little idea of how to successfully manage remote programs. It didn’t take long to find myself overwhelmed with the workload.

Initially, supporting 30 team members spread across ten remote sites turned out to be a lot harder than 100 on-site! Unique work schedules, project calendars, and challenges at each location had to be considered. To further complicate matters, each team member was seeking – and deserved – guidance and attention. There were a multitude of individual requests: benefits, vacation, work schedule changes, training, and so on. Curiously, however, I was not getting a lot of questions or comments regarding project support. My inbox was full of action requests, but few were related to the program. I wasn’t being informed regarding the status of work being performed. Were we getting the job done? Were our customers satisfied?

Looking back at how I handled this situation, I have identified four lessons learned, which I think can help other people successfully manage remote teams:

  • Encourage leadership at the lowest possible level (site and functional leads)
  • Take care of team member personal needs so they can better concentrate on supporting the project/program requirements
  • Be willing to delegate and do so appropriately
  • Communicate, communicate, communicate

So, what did I do in 2010?

My first action was to empower senior personnel at each location, designating site leads, and then provide them with guidance and procedures to manage their local team. Each site lead now had the authority to run their team schedule, approve time off, do the first review of training requests, and so forth. Team members now had someone on site they could go to for assistance. My inbox was getting lighter! Morale was improving! But I still needed to know what was happening at each location.

My next action was to communicate. This required multiple approaches: regular telecons, email, and reports. Conducting telecons turned out to be a bit tricky, since teams worked in different time zones, including overseas locations, and their “weekends” would sometimes fall in the middle of the week. When I realized one site lead would often miss the bi-weekly telecon, I learned his workday was ending just as we were starting the call. A slight adjustment in the meeting time ensured he could participate before leaving work.

Since meetings are often faced with dread, viewed as “one more thing keeping me from doing my job”, I wanted to keep it upbeat and show value in attending. I tried to start each call with an opportunity to chat as members dialed in. This started off as small talk about the weather or sports, but eventually a comfort level developed throughout the team and they began to share personal info, excitement about an upcoming trip, the birth of a child, or their hobbies. A team rapport was developing among people who had never met. This was a perfect a time to welcome new members and announce news of achievements such as degrees and certifications.

Next on the agenda was company news and goals. Understanding how their contributions benefits them as employees, as well as the company, increased motivation to support these goals. Rounding out the meeting, as I still do today, was a round-robin session, everyone’s opportunity to talk about their site. What were the challenges, successes? Were there actions pending? What help did they need from me, or team members from other locations?

By following the four steps I identified above, we were able to create a good team rapport and make sure the work was getting done, clients were happy, and the team had what they needed to succeed.

In our next installment of this series, we will get down into the details of how remote teams can effectively collaborate to solve problems and deliver work product.