companies are going remote in managing their teams. Margaret Kubicek looks at
the people development challenges they face along the way
Their empires may be expanding geographically, but today’s managers are
increasingly staying put. As the general cultural shift towards viewing Europe
as a single entity continues to cross over into business, and as growing
concerns over the economy force companies to integrate the business in an
effort to cut costs, managers are leading teams that span ever greater
distances and nationalities.
Remote team management may be a sign of the times, but so too are cutbacks
in business travel due to the threat of terrorism and lean economic times. As
recent as a decade ago – when remote teams were emerging as a result of
companies taking on an increasingly global focus – the approach was very
"We call it the superman pants syndrome," says Kevan Hall,
president of Global Integration, a consultancy that trains people to work internationally.
"Go in your office, spin round three times, pull superman pants over your
trousers and start flying around. Because people have been so used to a
hands-on style of management, they assume this is the only way to manage staff
based in another country."
Rick Woodward, training and development director for Kimberly-Clark Europe,
says frequent travel can inspire a false sense of security. "The belief
was the more managers were kept on the move, the closer they were to the business.
The reality was, although they felt close to the business, they were only
visiting places about every two months."
For managers to succeed in this new remote environment, says Woodward, they
simply need to accept they are remote and use all that today’s technology
advances can offer to build community and manage activity according to changing
Virtual teams – led by a remote manager who has responsibility for an aspect
of work or a short-term project but no line management responsibility for those
on the team – are also making more of an appearance in today’s global market.
Kimberly-Clark launched a global training programme and published an
internal guide for its remote and virtual managers last year. It is expanding
the programme this year and will include some tailored programmes for
individual teams. "From a systems co-ordinator point of view, we always
did work remotely – we just didn’t do it as effectively as we could," says
Chris Jefferies, Kimberly-Clark’s European business systems manager. "Now,
by understanding the challenges and adapting to remote working, we are."
Most of us are used to a sense of team community occurring naturally, but
this informal networking so natural in a traditional office environment just
doesn’t happen across great distances, says Woodward. "You’ have to work
at community and so you need a system to achieve it."
For the remote or virtual manager, that means having a keen awareness of
how, and in which circumstances, to use the different modes of communication –
from old-fashioned phone calls or teleconferences to real time online
discussion forums or e-mails.
E-mail, for example, is perfect for agendas and action plans. Says Woodward:
"What frustrates me in meetings or video conferences is managers
discussing action plans or timetables. If time is precious you really want to
use it for value-added activities and not clutter it with things that could be
sorted out via e-mail."
Woodward proposes that face-to-face meetings be reserved for discussing
issues that are contextual, strategic or developmental – in short, those
In circumstances where the only contact is e-mail, responsiveness is key,
according to Hall, who says something as simple as having access to a photo of
someone can help build trust. Hall identifies building community as the first
‘dilemma’ facing remote managers. "When you look at what people remember
of great teams it’s about community rather than ‘what we did’," he says.
"If you lose community in a remote team, you’re dead."
Other dilemmas centre on how to manage activity without being face-to-face
with your team and to what extent team members should look for common
approaches as opposed to doing simply whatever works locally.
According to Dr John Symons, lead tutor in leadership at Henley Management
College, emotional intelligence behaviours such as listening, patience and
sensitivity tend to make for more effective virtual and remote managers. These
teams, by their nature, invite a less dominant, more consensual style of
management, he says. "It’s something to do with the media, with allowing
everyone to have a say and to be reflective."
"We’ve all come out of meetings and said to ourselves, ‘I wish I didn’t
say that’ or ‘I could have been punchier’," continues Symons. But in the
virtual environment, ‘even though the chairman of the meeting doesn’t catch
your eye, you still get your say.’
Symons maintains that hierarchies fade online and virtual working encourages
an environment free from race, age and gender discrimination. In many cases, it
can even be more efficient than the traditional office. Says Symons:
"Remote communications such as e-mail allow people to be reflective,
whereas face-to-face has more of a sense of urgency."
The remote environment may delay the process of decision-making, according
to Symons, but it ‘teases out richer debate’ along the way.
For an example of the potential offered by remote team working, consider the
recent launch of Vodafone live! in 15 countries on the same day. The company’s
latest consumer offering, Vodafone live! combines colour, sound and pictures to
increase the range of mobile services on offer to customers.
The code for the software system which runs Vodafone live! comes from Japan,
while other aspects of the product were developed in other countries. "You
wouldn’t get the scale in just one country to develop a product such as
Vodafone live!," says Nick Holley, Vodafone’s group director of leadership
"Remote team working allows us to develop ideas across the business and
pool expertise rather than make it all come into the centre. It’s about getting
the benefits of being a global business while still building on local
creativity and local understanding."
He continues: "This is about getting people to develop the same
products in different countries. It’s about co-creating things so we get
ownership of them as ‘ours’ not ‘mine’."
Effective remote and virtual managers are those who delegate wherever
possible and empower their team members. They also inspire a high element of
trust, says Jeremy Webster, a partner at training and skills development
Webster identifies four elements necessary for managers to build trust:
openness about what is expected of your people; reliability so that you don’t
make promises you can’t keep or make unreasonable demands of your people;
congruency in your actions so you don’t say one thing and do another; and
acceptance of your people and their strengths.
As with trust, many of the necessary ingredients to successful remote team
management apply to teams in a conventional environment as well. Says Hall:
"It’s just that when we’re face-to-face we can get by without giving
attention to it."
For Webster, it’s simple. "The remote teams that succeed are the ones
that know what they have to do, what they can do, and deliver according to
those strengths. And achievement is seen as common to all."
Information flow feeds growth
Two years ago Kimberly-Clark launched its global Going for
Growth programme – restructuring its sales force to be customer-facing rather
than regionally orientated following the growth of international retailers.
"We now have multi-functional sales teams and along with
that restructuring, it made sense to develop European-wide systems," says
Chris Jefferies, Kimberly-Clark’s European business systems manager.
He was one of a number of Kimberly-Clark remote and virtual
managers to take part in training facilitated by consultancy Global Integration
last year. Jefferies now leads a team of 22 co-ordinators – formally put in
place at the beginning of the year – across Central, Southern and Eastern
Europe who support the new centralised sales and support system. Jefferies
says: "The main challenge is to get the system understood and embraced and
overcome the mentality which questions why we should adopt a new European
system when the local ones were thought to be working fine."
He has planned a kick-off meeting for early March to bring
everyone together in one place to share experiences, introduce them to the new
role and understand their responsibilities. It will also include a module on
remote working facilitated by Global Integration.
Establishing a good information flow early on is critical, as
is getting the team to sign on to a shared – European – objective, says
Jefferies. "Working remotely makes it easier for people to go off on
tangents and do what they think is right and what might be best locally, but
won’t necessarily be best from a European and a system point of view. People
need to feel empowered to give input into the European system so they don’t go
off and adapt the system locally."
Going virtual for the short term
Bayer Pharmaceuticals uses remote team working for short-term
projects to develop product education materials and sales excellence
initiatives. The teams exist for up to 10 months and typically comprise seven
or eight people across a range of Bayer’s departments, such as product experts
or medical specialists, and in different parts of the world.
Time and cost savings are a must, but Bayer accepts at least
some face-to-face meeting is necessary, according to Claire Hutchins, a Bayer
training manager. "These are not classic teams working over the long
term," says Hutchins. "But people still need to form as a team and
some face-to-face is needed if that is going to be achieved. Lack of
face-to-face meetings means certain assumptions can take place about what
people are doing and how much they are contributing."
Bayer employees may be working on a number of these kinds of
projects at any one time, on top of their everyday role. "The challenge
for anyone co-ordinating a team is to manage people without having direct line
management responsibility for them," says Hutchins.
Ever present is the ‘what’s-in-it-for-me factor’, she says, and
it’s best not avoided if the virtual team culture is to be fostered.
Involvement has a number of benefits – not least early knowledge of new
products the company is bringing to the market. "It broadens their minds
to be globally rather than locally focused, and it also forces them to network
more. It increases their visibility in the organisation as well as enhancing
Top tips on integrated learning
Once your remote team is in place and
operating effectively, the final challenge is to get the learning and best
practice that is taking place in different locations integrated across the
whole team for everybody’s benefit. Some practical ways to achieve this are:
– Train new team members specifically in how to work remotely.
Allocate them an experienced mentor
– Get new team members to capture their learning, and then pass
it on to the next new person. This makes a good induction project for new
people, but do get experienced people to quality check the material
– Allocate specific time for learning during face-to-face
meetings. Whenever possible – even if just once a year – get together in one
place and devote time to celebration, recognition and learning
Source: Kimberly-Clark’s guide to
Remote & Virtual Teams
Global Integration is offering a free practical guide to the
key challenges of managing remote and virtual teams to the first 25 readers who
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