The 3 Most Critical Skills for Managing a Remote Team

Last Updated Mar 1, 2010 5:59 PM EST

A recent BusinessWeek article suggests that soon as much as 26 percent of the US workforce will be made up of part time, temp or contract workers -- and few of them will be in the same place at the same time. While this might save money (and wear and tear on HR), many companies and their managers are acutely aware of both the opportunities and challenges this presents. Like male pattern baldness, this situation didn't develop overnight, but we must now learn to cope -- because there's no going back.

So what skills will managers of these ad hoc, virtual teams need to be successful? (You know, the ones our organizations should have thought about before putting us all in this spot?) Here are the three I consider most important for managers of the 21st-century team:

  1. The ability to create human connections quickly. In order to be truly functional, a team must have common goals and faith in each other's competence and motives. This only happens through getting to know one another. At the same time, time and money are scarce resources, so the odds of everyone getting together physically any time soon are slim. The dynamics of a remote team are the same as on a traditional team, with one complication -- you can't look someone in the eye or grab them in the hallway if necessary. The manager of the future will be able to quickly create a work environment where team members get to know their coworkers -- and their skill sets -- quickly. This might be through strategic delegation (you do know you don't have to do everything, right?) or rotating meeting leadership. In upcoming posts we'll look at more specific ways to achieve this -- stay tuned.
  2. The ability to know what tools to use when -- and how to use them. Given all the money spent on IT and the sheer volume of software applications for team collaboration, you'd think technology should be the least of our problems. Yet many companies complain that when they invest in tools, managers don't use them or get their teams to use them. Part of the problem is that managers, being annoyingly human, don't necessarily embrace every technology IT approves of. Knowing when to use email, when to pick up the phone, and when to use file sharing -- rather than bugging someone right now -- is not intuitive knowledge to most of us. We need to see tools demonstrated well, be given guidance on which situations a tool will address best, and have time to practice and develop competence. Otherwise that lovely SharePoint site IT is so proud of will sit idle, and the money will be wasted. In future posts, we'll look at how managers should go about choosing the right tool for the job.
  3. The ability to create loyalty. As more and more of us go to project-based work, we will be creating and disbanding teams, then having to reconstitute new ones. The successful manager of the future (particularly true of project managers) will be the person who can not only get her team to work together on the current task, but create the relationships and loyalty needed to build her next team. Will good people volunteer to work with you again, or must you start every single project from scratch? The answer to that question could mean millions of dollars in ramp-up time, recruiting, and rework.
The challenge is that we found ourselves in this brave new virtual/remote world without much forethought. The good news, as I'll continue to examine over the weeks and months to come, is now that we know what we need, we're running out of excuses for not getting on with the job.

Image courtesy am4ndas, CC 2.0