In my last 2 years as an entrepreneur, I have worked with more than 38 companies -- many of which are looking to build geo-diverse teams. It sounds great on paper: source talent from anywhere, work from home, maintain a flexible schedule, connect through video calls. But what I’ve found, in many instances, is that ‘remote cultures’ often don’t pan out in the way that leaders idealize them.
It’s not that remote teams are doomed to fail. With the right infrastructure in place, they can work. One of my clients, for instance, is a 7-person remote team and in my opinion, the gold standard of what a geo dispersed culture should be. While we have our hiccups, we are extremely synced up, aligned toward key organizational milestones, and attentive to each others’ responsibilities and non-work lives. While they are not a sales team per se, they’ve taught me some key foundations for managing a remote workforce, sales or otherwise. Here are the biggest lessons I’ve learned:
Understand That a ‘Well-Oiled’ Machine Won’t Happen Spontaneously
When I worked for a large public company -- and even when I started running my company, I (wrongfully) thought that a ‘work from home’ policy was enough to make remote teams successful. I learned the hard way that this perspective creates an overly simplistic view of both people and technology processes.
The fact is that remote teams introduce major paradigm shifts to the world of work. While there is extensive thought leadership devoted to office culture and in-person relationships, there isn’t much available to describe, for instance, what people should talk about on IM. I’ve found that awkwardness is the norm rather than the exception. I often struggle with basic interpersonal questions (i.e. should I IM a college about how her day is going?), and when a technical mishap occurs (i.e. failing video conferencing software), I’m at a loss.
It’s this awkwardness, however, that has taught me my biggest lesson about managing and being a part of a remote team. Success doesn’t just happen -- team leaders need to set expectations, build the right cultural foundations, create routines, and be available for seemingly uncomfortable yet normal questions (i.e. would people appreciate me sharing this spider dog video on group IM?).
Choose Technologies That Won’t Slow People Down
Even the best remote team that I have ever been a part of suffers from extreme technological mishaps. Sales teams can’t afford to lag behind. These team members already have more work than they can realistically manage -- QA-ing broken technologies is a major time sink.
At the end of the day, each team’s workflow is unique. You need to research technologies that complement natural communication flows, and then you need to run a few experiments to validate that the technologies you chose are, in fact, a fit.
Managers need to step in and build routines from the technologies that they've chosen. If you’re going to have team video calls, for instance, make sure that you always use the same video software (unless you conclude that it simply doesn’t work). If you’re going to use group IM software to have stream of consciousness conversations, don’t bring that over to email.
Just as offices have routines, so should remote teams. These processes will always ensure that you’re running meetings effectively -- and that team members know what to expect.
Encourage team members to shut off distractions when they’re on team calls and in meetings, too. It’s way too tempting to check Facebook and be minimally committed to the discussion taking place on the computer screen. Especially for remote, digitally connected teams, focus takes practice and patience.
Final Thoughts: Spend Time Together in Person
Human to human relationships are challenging enough to create from scratch -- and even more so through digital channels. The time you spend together in person can make a world of difference. Find moments for team members to spend time together in person -- even if it’s not all at once. It’s important to remember that it’s a person, not a video or chat box, on the other side of the computer screen.
Originally published Sep 19, 2014 6:00:00 AM, updated July 28 2017