If given the choice, more than 60% of Australians would work remotely.
This 2016 survey, commissioned by the recruitment company Randstad, was broad-based, capturing the views of more than 10,000 workers.
But for all the allure of a commute that takes you from your kitchen to workspace, managing remote project teams can be exceptionally challenging. Remote team management can involve major differences in native language, expectations, time zones and much more. And that makes for tough-going at times, from scheduling snafus to conveying the appropriate level of urgency on projects across multiple time zones.
Given this trend is unlikely to reverse anytime soon, a successful project management professional will need to master cultural communication challenges and remote work best practices.
Here are three ways project professionals and IT executives can gain more skills and perspective around managing and leading diverse, remote teams and improve overall project success.
Create Shared Memories
This may sound “soft” or secondary to some, but overcoming the fear of ‘out of sight, out of mind’ by remote workers is essential to building a high-performing team culture.
Organisations should encourage an understanding that working across time zones requires additional attention to respect. Managers are asked to time meetings appropriately and give space for the reality that phone or video meetings can make it difficult to hear details and nuance, not to mention the lack of clear body language or other touch points.
Make Goals Transparent
With so many moving parts and colleagues in multiple locations, it can be easy for any remote worker to default into “tunnel-vision”-mode and simply focus on their own personal deliverables.
This can easily dampen knowledge sharing activity and lead to missed connection points that could have big benefit to the business.
To encourage cross-functional collaboration and sharing of expertise among remote teams, CIO Australia magazine recommends making team goals more prominent on shared team work sites.
Another thing to consider is creating a team project “roadmap” that details the journey of the team. Of course, everyone would be encouraged to contribute.
For additional perspective, take some time to understand how teams are formed. The management blog Mind Tools calls one journey of team evolution “forming, storming, norming and performing.” Once the team is set up for success, they advise, “aim to have as light a touch as possible” and empower the team to own their success.
The Medium is the Message
There is risk everywhere on a typical project — delays, scope creep, you name it — all of which need to be mitigated.
But what if there is risk in even the simplest email?
Project managers of remote teams need to think through the right medium for each message carefully, bringing into the frame a high degree of thoughtfulness around, as CIO magazine put it, “how different cultures may prefer different communication mediums.”
CIO writers Gary Hamilton, Gareth Byatt and Jeff Hodgkinson explain how to pick up on the more subtle cues: “On phone calls (which are a common form of virtual communication), pay attention to the tone of voice being used; be perceptive to any signs of discontent or frustration. You can also hear if anyone is ‘tapping on a keyboard’ during a conference call. Check that people are paying attention by making any conference call interactive.”
Making remote communication more enjoyable is another tool in the project manager’s kit.
Take the popular chat tool Slack. Here’s one option, out of many apps, aiming to recreate the social, often serendipitous interactions that make working together in the office feel fun and satisfying.
It’s certainly “sticky.” According to the Harvard Business Review, an average Slack user interacts with the app for more than two hours a day and keeps it running for 10. That’s a tremendous amount of engagement.
No matter what tools you employ, though, it will always come down to a holistic- and human-centred approach.
Ultimately, the most time-tested way for any project manager to succeed in the Herculean task of breaking down barriers of time and culture is with a sustained focus on inclusion, empathy and clarity.
With that settled, everything else tends to fall into place.