Managing dispersed teams – A five-fold path to salvation

Managing dispersed teams – A five-fold path to salvation

There was a time before the Industrial Revolution when artisans produced their wares from own workshops –an extension of their residential quarters. Peddlers of intellectual goods like teachers and writers had been operating from their homes for a long time. And agrarian workers always worked from their fields – be it now or then! Every producer was in control of the entire produce; no shared responsibilities.

And then came the Industrial Revolution. Machine-driven mass production required specialization on one fragment of the entire production process – the idea was repeated execution of a single task enhances expertise and in turn pushes up production.Workers had to gather daily from different places at designated factories to contribute their bit. None could work in solitude – they had to be physically co-located and perform in teams. For the last two hundred years, this had been the work culture for both blue- and white-collar jobs. And this was the model on which all modern management theories have evolved. All along, managers had learnt to drive co-located teams.

Communication modes changed radically around the end of the 20th century when “mail” no longer meant a piece of handwritten or typed paper neatly folded in an envelope. Every exchange of information was now possible remotely – even from outer space! Organizations that operated on a global scale were quick to recognise the benefits of remote working. The IT companies channelized a lot of effort and investment to enable seamless working even if employees were located at opposite ends of the earth. This percolated to other industries and recruiters realised that here was a chance to access the widest possible talent pool. The “team” – traditionally a co-located, cohesive unit – thus got dispersed.

But what about managers? For two centuries they had been equipped to drive a group of people working at a common location. How do they cope with the changed reality, never felt more acutely than now, with the COVID-19 pandemic necessitating unprecedented lockdowns, forcing every kind of enterprise – big or small – to consider remote working? The change has been sudden but, in all probabilities, it is here to stay.

So, which might be the areas where managers will need to learn, unlearn or re-learn while manging dispersed teams? To begin with,both managers and employees must accept that so long as work gets done, the place does not matter. There should not be any scope for mistrust. As more millennial’s get elevated to managerial levels,the traditional “manager’s mindset”will definitely change and mutual trust prevail. But certain areas would still require adapting new approaches. Check out a new five-fold path to managerial salvation with dispersed teams.

  1. Right infrastructure

When the team is physically dispersed, workers need to be in close touch virtually – and that requires adequate technological infrastructure. Innovations in telecommunications have reached mind boggling heights during the last decades and developments are pouring in almost every week. A wide range of hardware and software options are available to suit the needs of enterprises of every size. Managers need to decide what level of remote access is required for which roles: do everyone need the same features, should field employees be able to make full use of emote facilities, what type of mobile device would be best for your employees, how to ensure that organisational resources can be accessed by remote workers without compromising on data security? Managers must not let any employee get the feeling of being left behind. Make it a habit to check periodically whether every remote worker is fine with the arrangements and whether they are facing issues.

Especially in companies that operate with a mix of blue- and white-collar workers, the balance is difficult to strike. Analysing every task and every role to determine the levels of remote working that can be achieved is a sensitive task. Some blue-caller roles are critically important and may not be performed remotely. Managers should think of including all employees in the decision-making exercise so that there is a common feeling of inclusion in the ranks and files.

  1. Right communication

Co-located workers are confident that any query will be resolved through a quick chat in seconds. This assurance acts as a psychological boost – and work proceeds smoothly. Dispersed groups do not have this mental cushion and may feel lost whenever roadblocks pop up. The only solution is regular, frequent and effective communication.

While workers are free to engage in virtual conversations for any urgent resolution, managers must schedule regular team calls. This cuts through the feeling of working alone, and common issues are addressed right away – thus reducing any chance of misunderstandings. Choose the right platform for such virtual meets – MS Teams, Skype, Yammer – whatever fits the requirement. Decide on the frequency of these calls; in a remote environment, more frequent contacts are necessary. New team members and mission-critical teams should engage in additional meetings to benefit from collaborative exchanges. Do encourage unplanned conversations and non-work-related banters between dispersed employees – just to keep up the sense of camaraderie. Remember, the cup of coffee or the watercoolers at office do play a positive role when people are co-located.

  1. Right directions

In a traditional office set-up, the grapevine is often a good source of trickle-down information. Not all of it may be accurate, but experienced workers can discern with fair accuracy which way the wind is turning. While working remotely such informal hints are absent, and any organisational announcement may come as a shock. This is why remote workers may always remain a bit edgy, even when things are running fine; ever fearful of being out of loop and missing crucial information – either good or bad.

Targeted and sustained communique on what is happening at the organisational level could calm down a lot of nerves. Remote workers indulge in unnecessary speculations regarding company strategies, direction, client base, targets, revenue, performance appraisals, HR policies and compensation.This calls for clear and precise information dissemination policy from the organisations.Sharing the right information at the right time will create a sense of purpose and direction.

  1. Right spirit

Managers and organisations must acknowledge that dispersed teams have emerged more out of necessity rather than to allow unending home comfort to slackers. This is the basic premise of trust and faith. Make this a starting point and arrange all your employee-interactions around this centre of mutual trust.

Set ground rules for the remote working mode – rules that can substitute every interaction that you indulged in while managing co-located teams. Follow etiquette’s for virtual conferences just like you followed in physical meetings. Video conferences are great for creating an enhanced sense of contact – but only when they are conducted professionally.

Share feedback and carry on other relevant discussions with your employees as if they are co-located. Never discriminate. Remote communication demands some amount of redundancy to carry the message through, so do not hesitate to repeat any important point – lest it gets lost in transit. And finally, empower your employees to make their own decisions. That will erase out a lot of problems and create a greater sense of ownership within team members.

  1. Right solutions

Workplaces are bound to have complications and conflicts. When the issue pertains to process, procedure or resources, the manager needs to collect appropriate inputs in the least possible time and offer a viable solution or guide the team to search for a solution. While this is routine for managers in any enterprise, time and clarity of instructions is crucial for dispersed teams. Be informed and act before others react based on assumptions and rumours.

However, if human conflict is the issue then the situation gets tricky. How do you facilitate emotionally charged conversations while in the remote mode? In virtual environments, not seeing the body language or the expressions on the other side puts a lot of employees in the defensive. They often do not speak up when they should. Managers should be very careful about what they say and how. And during such discussions, always keep work in focus – nothing personal ever.

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