As part of my recently completed Postgraduate Diploma in People and Talent Management at Nova School of Business & Economics, one of the individual papers I submitted for assessment (in January 2020) was on managing remote teams. This is a topic that has been dear to my heart for a long time; little did I know at the time I wrote about it that it would become of interest to so many people a few months later, unfortunately not for the best of reasons. I share parts of my essay here, in order to give a few more clues to those trying out this way of working for the first time.

Action plan

To face each specific challenge of a remote team, the action plan to be implemented must obviously be integrated with the usual elements of creation and development of a work team. In the scope of this text I will only refer to the steps related to specific and especially critical areas in the context of remote work: technology, discipline, relationships and company culture.

Stage 1 - Technology

Usually, the first step to establish a remote team (after the steps common to face-to-face teams) consists of implementing virtual communication tools or platforms. There are numerous on the market, but the chosen one should allow exchanging written messages in real time, writing documents together, carrying out video conferences, organising in a common area the individual calendars, agendas and meeting summaries, project schedules, dynamic action lists, workflow and archives in general.

It is essential to have realistic communication rules, such as scheduling the virtual meetings respecting everyone's time zones, starting them on time, keeping them short and focused and ensuring everyone participates. Everyone should fill in timeline updates as soon as there are planning changes. On the other hand, the means must never be considered ends in themselves, i.e. email, skype or whatsapp cannot enslave their users and there must be rules respecting the private time of each one, for example not expecting a message to be answered immediately or during the weekend. The telephone is still an essential and privileged means of communication when there is something to discuss or clarify, because the human voice transmits many essential clues to the understanding of the message.

Stage 2 - Discipline

As already mentioned, communication in virtual teams requires more discipline and also more transparency. The team's objectives must be continuously reaffirmed, the rules of interaction between members must be clear and their roles well defined from the outset. There should be a pre-established forum, in which everyone participates, to communicate any changes or reaffirm what remains when, for example, circumstances change. Whatever system is used, the aim should be to avoid isolating remote workers at all costs. It is also essential to establish immediate and clear feedback mechanisms, otherwise the whole remote structure will collapse through lack of alignment on team members' performance.

Ideally, everyone will know how decisions are made (e.g. unanimous, majority or boss decision), priorities are set, work is planned and controlled, meetings are managed and team and individual recognition is given. Opportunities for speculation in these fields, especially at the beginning, should be minimised as they create insecurity, uncertainty and unnecessary mistakes.

The effort in this stage is mainly planning and alignment, it is very important to take the necessary time and to go back to discuss and clarify the working procedures, in case of doubts. It is useful to document them, not least because every time a new member joins the team they need to be trained in all these rules.

Stage 3 - Relationships

Once the necessary tools and respective rules are in place for formal communication, special care has to be taken with informal communication. This starts at the first team meeting, which should be held as soon as the team is constituted and should be face-to-face (at least once a year team members should meet). Weekly one-to-one team meetings should be planned as a follow-up to infrequent (monthly, quarterly or half-yearly) face-to-face meetings.

It is normal to have resistance to creating relationships because people tend to approach remote work in an impersonal way. However, getting to know the daily lives of the people we work with activates the areas of the brain related to empathy, which are essential for a healthy group dynamic (Dugan & Bhatnagar, 2018). It is therefore important to create and facilitate moments of one-to-one connection, facilitated by transparency in communication (e.g. everyone having full access to each other's electronic calendars).

There is a risk that people with more introverted personalities may not be able to express more personal concerns. Or, alternatively, more extroverted people may feel frustrated or isolated because they cannot interact whenever they feel the need. Hence, specific training on styles and personalities is an essential element to nurture interpersonal relationships and mutual understanding.

Team leadership, formal or informal, must ensure that there is a flow of information between members, that they share what concerns and matters to them. Trust has to be nurtured continuously with the feelings of empathy that are generated between people.

Stage 4 - Culture

Finally, for a remote team to work in the long term, powerful alternatives have to be found to the daily meeting to align everyone's values and principles. Each person's sense of belonging to the team and to the company must be nurtured. As already mentioned, the ideal are face-to-face moments, very well planned and focused on what we can only do when we are together (for example, games and activities to get to know each other), that non-verbal communication that will allow us to "fill the gaps" when we are hundreds of miles away from each other.

This article is republished under a partnership with Supply Chain Magazine

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