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How to Manage Remote Distributed Teams – Best Practice Strategies and Tools

You Just Found Yourself Leading a Remote Team. What Next?

Business is moving virtual fast. Here are best practices for how to lead a productive remote or distributed team.

When I ran the strategy consulting group at HP almost 20  years ago, my team worked remotely. We were on the forefront of virtual work, mostly because we had no choice as a truly global company. We experimented with some of the first online collaboration tools. We designed team-building processes that we ran using technology like teleconferences and screen sharing. Since that time, I’ve led startup teams of my own and designed collaborative processes involving distributed teams for about 30 of the Fortune 1000 as part of my consulting work.

Now, given what’s going on with the COVID-19 virus, governments and companies everywhere are instructing workers to stay home and telecommute.  The challenge is that many managers haven’t actually been trained on what’s needed to lead virtual or distributed work teams. Remaining effective is always a challenge in tough times, but when you add an entirely new working model into the mix, it can deliver a double whammy hit to productivity.

As a result, leaders, managers and employees must quickly figure out how keep their teams up and running, not just by adopting new technology but, even more importantly, through new team norms, collaboration techniques, and business processes.

Here are some tips and tricks I’ve learned and used to help teams hit their stride working remotely. Use it as a checklist to make sure your own team is firing on all cylinders:

1. Create Objectives & Key Results

Objectives and Key Results, also known as OKRs, give people focus by defining their responsibilities and the measurable deliverables that they’re expected to produce for the team.  Clarify your team’s overall objectives and results, and then help each individual determine their own objectives and results to support the bigger picture.

2. Establish Operating Norms

Define the team norms to guide your work. Consider creating an “Operating Norms Chart” that outlines how your team will function related to working hours, using specific technologies, meeting agendas, business processes, or anything else that’s important to make explicit.

3. Use Agendas for Every Meeting

Always use a structured agenda for all teleconferences, videoconferences and web meetings. Even face-to-face meetings can suffer from poorly articulated objectives and unstructured processes. Having a clear norm for your meeting process ensures everyone is prepared and knows how to fully participate.

4. Keep a Dashboard

It’s easy for team members to feel isolated working remotely. Creating a visual dashboard helps people understand the big picture and how they fit into it. Dashboards can include strategies, project tasks, success measures, team members’ contact information, or anything else that shows how individuals’ work fits into the broader team’s work, and how the team’s efforts fit into the broader goals and processes of the organization.

5. Clarify Business Processes

For many organizations, business processes aren’t fully defined. Informal processes might work with everyone in the same office, but things can fall apart when people need to do fairly complex things and they aren’t in the same room. Use the shift to remote work to engage your team to define or clarify your priority business processes.

6. Leverage Technology

Technology tools allow teams to run real-time meetings, manage projects, and more. Technology is effective or ineffective based on whether it supports a team’s business processes.  Leverage technology but don’t be enamored by it. Make sure everyone knows exactly what tools are used for what, when and why.

The current disruption caused by COVID-19 will accelerate business’ and society’s move toward working remotely as the new normal, from virtual teams to virtual doctor visits. How you use technology is even more important than the technology itself. That’s the ultimate ingredient for productive teamwork.

Soren Kaplan is the bestselling and award-winning author of Leapfrogging and The Invisible Advantage, an affiliated professor at USC’s Center for Effective Organizations, a former corporate executive, and a co-founder of UpBOARD. He has been recognized by the Thinkers50 as one of the world’s top keynote speakers and thought leaders in business strategy and innovation.

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