7 Strategies for managing Dispersed Teams
It seems like every organisation is faced with this scenario and it differs greatly from how organisations managed teams and resources 20 years ago. In today’s world of global professional services organisations Project Managers, Resource Managers, Department Managers, CEOs, and everyone in between seem to be managing – at some time or another – resources who are not co-located with the rest of the team members they are working with on projects and company initiatives.
There is something to reflect on the terminology we use when we are talking about Teams that are “dispersed”; some are geographically dispersed across the globe, others are still located in one building, but are being asked to work on a “flexible” or “agile” basis in terms of working arrangements. These include approaches like hot desking, agreeing methods of performance expectations, and various ways of staying in touch. Currently I am working with a Research Team where only a handful of the team members are based in the same office, and a Local Authority which is going through substantial changes to bring all staff into one location with considerably less space than previously.
While the scenario of managing dispersed teams is more the norm now than the exception, it is not without it’s challenges and it’s own set of ‘best practices’. If one hopes to be successful in overseeing dispersed teams and leading them on tasks and projects – especially customer-facing projects – then there are a few things that must happen…some key concepts to keep in mind in order to effectively manage:
Efficient and effective communication
The number one responsibility of a Project Manager or Team lead is efficient and effective communication. And never is that more critical than when you are managing resources you can’t reach out to face to face. If you’re working on a project, it’s important to plan how and when communication will happen. It is highly recommend that the Team agree together a communication plan – even if it’s a brief one. In that plan you can identify all communication points on the project, include everyone’s contact information all in one place, and plan for what meetings will happen weekly, monthly, etc. It will hold the Project Manager and team accountable to communication throughout the project and build customer/stakeholder confidence because this process has been planned for and provide upfront to every project stakeholder.
2. Manage the project deliverables, not project activities
Lots of project-oriented work is well suited to mobile staff. Even roles that are more task driven can be effectively managed if they are broken into deliverables. For mobile staff this may mean collapsing some of the activities of a business process or workflow that had manual checkpoints and controls associated with them into deliverables. Automation where possible can be used or batching activities into larger groups can transform task oriented jobs into deliverables. Realise that there can be many facets of your project team members’ tasks that may need to be adjusted to accommodate a mobile work style.
3. Regular internal team meetings
It’s a great idea to conduct regular team meetings no matter where team members are located. It helps the team become more cohesive and seamless in their actions and tasks. This can be a nightmare to organise (!) and it may be that you have to take a pragmatic approach where not all team members can join the meeting each and every time. Some teams arrange staggered meetings where virtual members join every other meeting, or segment the team into smaller groups so that everyone does get the chance to meet face to face or at least virtually.Whilst this loses some of the inclusivity of the whole group, its about being creative to keep the “social glue” of the team topped up as well as the practical things discussed at the meeting.
4. Peer review everything
This is an important concept, whether the team is co-located or geographically dispersed. But it becomes even more important when you can’t just walk a document to the office next door for a review. When team members aren’t communicating face to face, it’s easy to assume people are reviewing and proof reading team documents. Don’t skip this process and find out that you delivered an important document with inaccuracies and misspellings. I found that out the hard way and never let it happen again. You lose some customer confidence that is very hard to get back.
5. Use of automation
Anytime you’re dealing with a project team or functional team that has one or more geographically dispersed team members, it’s important to use as much automation as possible to enhance the information sharing and collaboration experience.
For projects, choose a good web-based tool that allows for the entire team to input information, update task responsibilities and completion status, and share documents and knowledge throughout the engagement with everyone on the team. It will make the Project Manager’s job easier and there is less chance that key information will fall through the cracks. There are lots of project management tools out there, but recent ones I have been involved with are “Basecamp” as an online tool for which there is a cost, or “Trello” which is a free simple tool where activities can be agreed, followed up etc.
For regular organisational teams, be sure to look for tools that provide good mind sharing and document storage and sharing capabilities. These types of tools are now widely available from vendors all over the world at very reasonable costs, and you can easily control the security and access of the information as well as allow access to specific customers on an as needed basis.
6. Exchange of personnel on a regular basis to build inter-personal relationships
It’s important that the Manager – staff relationship be strengthened over time. Relationships left unattended like this can lead to short employee tenures and higher turnover rates, costing the organisation valuable finance in employee training, orientation time, and knowledge transfer that is lost with the exiting employee. For Manager-staff relationships that are virtual, many issues can be overcome or avoided with regular face-to-face meetings – even if it’s just every 6 months or so. Of course take advantage of any situations where you’re logically going to be in the same place at the same time such as annual company gatherings, project team meetings to kickoff a project or a major phase, etc. But when those aren’t happening in the near future, make something happen. Go to the member of staff’s location for a meeting one time, and have the employee come to you 6 months later. The cost savings in productivity, improved communication and reduced employee turnover will far outweigh any associated travel costs.
Performance management is also important, but it doesn’t have to be tedious and excruciating process or obligation. Designing some unstructured, informal ongoing dialogues with your remote team members individually about their performance goals and personal development plans is a great way to strengthen communications, and shows an active interest in them.
7. All-in-one summits bringing everyone together
Finally, if you can’t all be in one place all the time, then at least make sure everyone is all in one place at one time. An annual two or three day gathering of the team gives the Manager a chance to introduce new team members, utilise some team building activities, allows all team members to review policies and procedures face to face and brainstorm on changes that will add productivity and focus to the entire team. It might be if the Teams are based in one locality that this could happen quarterly. The idea is to bring all the Team to one central location to share news, review current processes and methodologies, and brainstorm on changes that would enhance the overall project management processes in the organisation. Most of us left with action items that created ownership and accountability and definitely brought more cohesion to the team as a whole.
The bottom line is, managing any team is challenging. And most of us are getting used to managing one or more resources who aren’t working with us face to face. In order to keep the entire team working together as one cohesive, productive units don’t fall into the trap of assuming everything is going smoothly just because you aren’t seeing issues.
Communicate – even over communicate. Conduct regular team meetings even if there isn’t much to cover during a given session. Review each other’s work as a team. It’s all about collaboration and continuing to deliver quality work even though you aren’t working physically in the same location.
For more about Teams and assessment tools working with Teams, click here
Adapted from an article developed by Mounir Hilal of Tenrox