Working with remote teams is not just about the tools. It’s about how you can get everyone to buy into your ideas and share your passions
The rise of the millennial generation has brought about significant changes in the way teams and organisations work together. According to Pew Research, the so-called Generation Y has surpassed its predecessors in terms of labor force participation. A survey by Ernst & Young found that 75 per cent of millennials value flexibility in the workplace, along with opportunity for progression.
This means the workplace will need to accommodate the workflows and quirks of today’s digital natives.
One offshoot of this trend is that many organisations are now working on a remote basis or outsourcing some part of the workforce, in order to cut costs and hire the best available people who are otherwise unable to be physically present. Thus, while startups other enterprises prefer to co-locate, not everyone can do it. Employing virtual or remote teams can be a good compromise — an alternative to outsourcing, even.
This also means organisations will need to make adjustments and incorporate accountability into the workflow.
Why go remote? The case for a young and mobile workforce
The millennial workforce is growing, highly skilled, and in touch with the demands of today’s sharing economies. Venture capitalist Wempy Dyocta Koto has said that millennials are “extremely, extremely, extremely digitally savvy … They didn’t go through desktops and laptops. They’ve leaped from zero, from farms to mobile phones.”
Sourcing for talent can be a key challenge for any organisation, however. Depending on where potential employees are located, businesses may either face a shortage of capable people in their immediate vicinity or may face stiff competition with all the other companies looking for the same skill sets. LinkedIn has identified these as key obstacles to attracting top talent.
But thanks to technology, it is now possible for talent searches to go global. The Asia Pacific region’s population is swelling along with its workforce. Freelance job sites Elance and Odesk report that there are 4.9 million freelancers from Asia, and that many are attracted to the flexibility offered by remote work. They can easily transform any space into their workplace, armed only with their laptops and mobile phones. Many are comfortable working under such conditions and can adapt to the systems, processes, and tools that help facilitate remote team operations.
Putting people – not tools – at centre stage
Managing people remains to be one of the trickiest parts of running a business. Two things are paramount with remote teams: productivity and accountability. Yes, it all comes down to relationships, but you do need the right tools to encourage workers to be both collaborative and accountable.
A constant challenge for virtual teams is matching the level of cohesion and productivity that teams in offices together naturally achieve. Presence and face-to-face interaction encourage cooperation, output, and unison.
Many remote teams also often suffer from process ambiguities if there are no tools to help manage communication and collaboration. Managers and team members just starting out usually find their work scattered over several free cloud services like Google Docs, DropBox, and Trello. What you need is a single touch point around which everyone can congregate.
Cloud-based job management tools are aimed at managing multiple aspects of the business, such as tasking and time tracking, marketing and sales, purchase orders and invoicing, and reports and accounting on one platform. Having an integrated system helps virtual teams since tasks can flow seamlessly ensuring that staff members are also working on the same set of issues. Collaboration tools also help define who exactly does what. Communication can even be sorted based on the jobs people are working on.
Being able to share documents and spreadsheets alone will not be enough to optimise operations, however. Effective teamwork will require better cohesion and a smooth workflow. “There are so many interesting people out there, creating clever products, doing the thing that puts a flutter in their belly, trying to make a buck doing what they love,” said Xero CEO Rod Dury upon the launch of the company’s job management service WorkflowMax. “But small business isn’t easy, and finally someone is rooting for the little guys, helping them reclaim one less late night dealing with spreadsheets.”
Collaboration should go beyond shared workflows and messaging, however. It’s a common pitfall for remote working arrangements to fail because of the lack (perceived or otherwise) of true teamwork. In fact, some startups discourage or disallow it.
“Communication outside of the office lacks the intimacy we can only achieve face-to-face,” UberFlip COO Randy Fritsch writes on Entrepreneur. “Think about attempting a long distance relationship with someone special; the same pitfalls apply. It’s no easy feat to maintain the level of intimacy that comes from being in the same room with someone.”
How do you get your team members to buy in, then?
The need for better visibility and accountability
One big challenge for leadership when managing remote teams is getting people to buy into what you are doing. In such cases, information is key to having everyone on the same page. Workers can find themselves lost when they do not get the sense of “where we are” when performing their duties.
Just dumping data on them does not really work. In this regard, working with remote teams will run you the risk of having information silos. Since people do not meet face-to-face, there is a chance that team members will get crossed wires and mixed signals.
Ben Carpel, the CEO of analytics dashboard platform Cyfe, is especially adamant about the power of sharing for smooth team operations. “Just two or three years ago, it was pretty common for different business units in a given company to keep their data under wraps,” he says. “The idea that sales reps might want to take a look at cash flow or web traffic patterns, for example, was just too threatening to everyone involved. But now we’re finally seeing these silos coming down, which I think is really encouraging. Your company’s various teams aren’t islands. Everything is interrelated when you look at the big picture, and there’s so much to be gained by making sure everyone involved can see that.”
Carpel sees organisational alignment as essential to the success of businesses, both small and large. “When I speak with managers setting up their dashboards using Cyfe, they often tell me that cross-team organisational alignment is one of the biggest challenges that they face,” he says. “As today’s workforce becomes increasingly distributed and multifunctional, this type of meta-transparency is all the more important.”
The solution here is to establish clear visibility over one’s business operations and processes. Business dashboards provide everyone across the organization with a clear snapshot of the state of the business. By letting staff members know how their tasks contribute to the bigger picture, managers can promote a sense of responsibility and accountability in them. Dashboards can also help guide management with better transparency – a holistic picture of how well teams are doing.
At the core of inspiring teamwork is not losing sight of the fact that teams – even remote ones – are made up of people. A common pitfall for many virtual team managers is to enforce the use of tools rather than acknowledging that people are the ones getting jobs done.
Systems and tools are there to support and provide the means to congregate and deliver. These are critical, of course, but also keep in mind that tools exist to support the people who are working hard to achieve business objectives.
The views expressed here are of the author’s, and e27 may not necessarily subscribe to them. e27 invites members from Asia’s tech industry and startup community to share their honest opinions and expert knowledge with our readers. If you are interested in sharing your point of view, submit your post here.
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