Having looked after teams in Asia over the last eight years, I am the first to admit that managing people remotely is hard work. Why? Because remote teams are isolated from the day-to-day communication that the rest of us take for granted.
While everyone might be clear about a project at the start of the week, by Friday the work may have been clarified, discussed, refined and massaged into something very different. Without access to these conversations, it’s no surprise that your remote team members can be five steps behind everyone else! We assume they’re on the same page, but in reality they’ve been left out and robbed of the opportunity to add value.
Throughout my career, I have found that the secret to effectively managing teams remotely is simple: When in doubt, communicate! Here are six ideas that I’ve implemented to stay better connected to my team overseas:

Create a daily summary

At the end of each day, a member of my team will compile discussion points around key projects. If we talked about processes, issues, concerns, or made any decisions during the course of the day – it’s documented, filed, and sent out to the remote team members. That way, nothing gets lost in translation.
I’ve been doing this with my teams for the last 12 weeks now and the results have been very positive – the remote members of my team feel more included and informed, and I can close doors faster with fewer errors than before.

Give them clear goals, tasks and deadlines

We all know role ambiguity kills engagement. The last thing I want is for the remote members of my team to feel like they’re isolated from the rest of the team, and are waiting around for work. It’s critical to let them know exactly what I want them to achieve over the coming month/quarter, so that they can feel empowered, independent and in control.
During regular catch-ups we’ll verbally agree on tasks, KPIs, short and long-term milestones; document them; and then refer back to this on an on-going basis. Checking in regularly to see how they’re going is critical, particularly for those that are shy/uncomfortable about bringing up issues. Of all the engagement strategies I’ve implemented, I’ve found this to be the most effective so far.

Recognise their efforts publically

Remote teams often don’t get the verbal “Good job!” that people offer in passing here. I make an effort to regularly recognise their contribution publically, such as in a team meeting or team email. This helps them to feel like their efforts are acknowledged and valued – and that they’re part of the team.
I don’t always wait for something “big” to happen to recognise them. It could be as simple as telling them they have written a good email, or thanking them for completing a task proactively.
Recently one of my team members in Asia presented some information on a conference call. I sent them an email telling them they did a great job on the call citing a specific example: “I like the way you handled question x on the call.” I then followed that up in our next team meeting giving them a few minutes on the call to talk about their presentation and how they felt it went.
When it comes to managing people remotely, out of sight doesn’t need to mean out of mind. By making the effort to (over)communicate and include them as part of the team, we both win.

Get them involved in team building/celebrations

Celebrating together and creating shared memories is one of the best ways I’ve found to bring my remote and local teams together. Here’s an example: My team completed a major global project last year, and I was given budget to take them to lunch as a congratulations.
Instead, we bought a cake in Sydney and organised a team meeting via teleconference. While on the line to Singapore, they received a knock at the door, and were surprised with a cake of their own (which I had organised through the office manager).
We all enjoyed in the cake celebration as a team, and it’s a memory that the team in Singapore still recount to this day. We do the same for holidays – whether it’s exchanging Christmas cards, chocolates for Valentine’s Day, lanterns for Diwali or envelopes for Chinese New Year – if it happens here, we make sure it happens for the remote members of my team. For a small cost, these things go a long way to making people feel included.

Schedule meetings within their time zone

Another simple consideration: if you are managing people outside of your country, make meetings in a convenient time within their time zone. Unless a major crisis has erupted, I also avoid missing or changing meetings with Asia. They’re not here to understand why a meeting can’t happen, so it’s important to honour the commitment to demonstrate that I value their time and prioritise our catch ups.

Slow down meeting agendas

Phone conversations are tough, even if language issues aren’t a factor. For people on the receiving end it’s often difficult to hear, hard to interject, and impossible to interpret social queues. It’s critical to avoid rushing through the agenda. Remote teams need a chance to weigh in and respond, as we can’t see perplexed looks or confusion. They need to feel they’ve had a chance to listen and participate. Here’s how I structure each discussion point:
“Does anyone in Asia have any questions?”
“Does anyone in Australia have any questions?”
“Asia team – before we move on from this topic, do you have anything more to add?”
This gives my remote team ample opportunity to have things repeated, clarified or explained. Meetings are minuted and distributed, then followed up with a personal phone call to ensure everything was understood, and to give them a chance to clarify things privately. It also means that as a manager all major announcements and changes are captured, should I need to refer to them down the track.
When it comes to managing people remotely, out of sight doesn’t need to mean out of mind. By making the effort to (over)communicate and include them as part of the team, we both win – the business leverages their talents, and they feel like an engaged and valued member of the team.

Summary

More and more employees are working remotely, and sometimes entire teams are separated from their manager, which can lead to feelings of isolation and disconnection. The most important things to do is maintain regular, consistent communication with remote workers and teams, and to have clear parameters in place to ensure no communication is misinterpreted.
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