Dr Suzanne Edinger: Managing Remote Teams

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Managing Remote Teams

As business becomes increasingly global, HR departments face the challenge of helping their business leaders to manage global teams that can be spread across continents. While working in remote teams doesn’t have to be more difficult than working with colleagues who are in the same physical location, there are important differences that must be considered.

It’s critical that both HR professionals and line managers do not to assume that a virtual team can be motivated and managed in the same way as people who are located together. Equally, both managers and remote team members need to be made aware of these differences and helped to develop the skills and competencies that will foster effective remote team working.

Successful virtual teams don’t just happen spontaneously. They are contingent on the right tools and processes being in place to enable individuals to communicate and collaborate effectively and to manage accountability. But above all, they grow out of strong relationships. If remote team members don’t trust each other, they cannot work together effectively.  As such, managers of remote teams need to proactively build trust far more than they would in face-to-face teams. Key to this are clear and effective communication skills.

The two go hand in hand because trust creates a framework that allows communication to flow freely. What enables all this is something called social capital, often defined as “the networks of relationships among people who live and work in a particular society, enabling that society to function effectively.”

When people work together in the same location, informal or tacit communication takes place – so-called ‘water cooler conversations’ – and these help to form social bonds.  This sort of communication doesn’t exist with remote teams and so the gap needs to be deliberately filled to create cohesion and start to build those all-important social bonds. My own research into building and utilizing social capital suggests several ways in which this can be achieved.

Firstly, leaders who invest time in developing high-quality working relationships with their team members set the bar in relation to the importance of personal interactions and encourage others in the team to do the same.

The data shows that team members who are friends, not just work colleagues, are more likely to share strong social capital ties. But in virtual teams, it is much harder for individuals to get to know one another and so it’s important that time can be set time aside to enable team members to socialize around non-work-related activities and build those all-important human connections.

Secondly, by fostering the growth of social capital in teams, organisations can better capitalize on the expertise that is distributed amongst team members. And once again, a virtual environment makes it much harder for team leaders to manage ‘who knows what’ and know the strengths, weaknesses and areas of specific expertise of the people they work with. So organizations need to develop effective tools and strategies for accessing that knowledge. By encouraging strong social capital in teams, members can forge the close relationships necessary to access their team’s distributed expertise quickly and efficiently.

Finally, social capital is a fundamental building-block of trust as this type of interaction normally develops over time through repeated interactions between individuals. As a result, a team member can see how a person responds in different situations and assess their level of trustworthiness. However, when team members are isolated from one another geographically there are fewer opportunities to do so.  It’s also a highly individualized process that is influenced by the cultural backgrounds of those involved and so building trust becomes even more difficult as team cultural diversity increases if operating across country boundaries.

Here are some tips for HR professionals to help team leaders and managers with the challenging of operating effectively as a remote team.

  1. Get the right people for the job – Remote teams aren’t for everyone. HR can provide the selection and assessment tools to ensure that individuals assigned to remote teams have the skills and competencies to make it work and that the team leaders are suitably qualified for the role.
  2. Communication, communication, communication – In a remote environment it’s far easier for misunderstandings to arise. Inconsistent communication can quickly breed misunderstandings and result in a breakdown in trust. Make sure managers and team leaders understand the importance of strong communication skills and provide support and training on this issue.
  3. Help managers to understand their people better – It’s harder to trust someone if you have never met them face-to-face or know little or nothing about them at an interpersonal level. Personality profiling tools can provide managers and other team members with valuable insights into what makes people tick and can have a positive effect on team dynamics.
  4. Small things matter – Small talk and personal conversation can provide an important foundation for building trust. Breaking the ice is a strategy that has been shown to improve engagement in meetings as well as the overall quality of the team’s output. If necessary, provide some cultural sensitivity training to illustrate why avoiding social interaction is not a good way of “saving time.”
  5. Social interaction is important – Encourage a culture within the business where it is acknowledged that social interaction plays an important role in successful remote team working. Research shows that team members who are friends, and not just work colleagues, are more likely to share strong social capital ties and work more effectively together. And, just because a team is virtual does not mean that people cannot “socialise” with one another.

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About Dr Suzanne Edinger

Dr Suzanne Edinger is a Lecturer in Organisational Behaviour at Nottingham University Business School. Her research interests include social capital resources of individuals and teams, innovation process and outcomes in teams, cross-cultural management and social network methodology

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