People and Change

Leading a dispersed team

Anne Phillipson Anne Phillipson

With the increase in remote working, globalisation, flexi time, and matrix structures, there is every chance that if you are not currently leading a dispersed team, you will be in the near future. This means that leaders require enhanced awareness and new skills to engage others that they don’t see face-to-face or possibly have never meet in person, to make their remote team feel as connected as the person sitting at the desk beside them.

Let’s start with awareness and mind-set. The single biggest factor in the ‘employee experience’ is their relationship with their direct line manager. So it is critical that team members not co-located with the team lead don’t feel disadvantaged because of where they happen to work. Whether that’s across the world or three floors away in the same building, it is easy to fall into the trap ‘out of sight, out of mind’. This means the leader must consciously go out of their way to include remote team members in daily chats –whether that is using Instant Messenger (IM), telephone / Skype calls, web-chats, or social network apps –to check-in, update, offer support or challenge.

The leader must initiate these interactions at first, and hopefully, in time, the team members will also make the effort to connect daily. Otherwise, you run the risk of a team member feeling isolated and disconnected from the priorities of the team.

Awareness of the time zones of remote workers is also important; don’t greet them with a ‘good morning’ when it’s already afternoon or evening where they are. And check your world clock when scheduling those check-ins. Little things like this make a big difference, and when you are engaging less frequently it is even more important that you get it right, every time.

Once you have adopted an inclusive approach, it is important to consider the leadership skills that are critical to leading dispersed teams. Top of that list is ‘cultural competence’, which is the ability to understand or find out how the execution of certain universal practices translates from one culture to another. A leader of a global team must be adaptable and exhibit cultural sensitivity, with the ability to modify behaviour for different situations, localities, or audiences. While there are lots of books and resources to help with this, nothing compares to actually visiting your team members on their home turf. A visit will help you appreciate the cultural norms and working environment of your remote worker. This investment of time and travel may cost initially, but the dividends in the enhanced relationship will generate returns for years to come. And don’t forget to invite the remote team members to visit the home office, too.

Leading at a distance requires extra energy. A global leader must possess extra capacity for focus and productivity, and the ability to turn up the energy in a fast-paced, always-on environment. Global leaders have to be extremely self-aware, make extra effort to engage, and need to be sensitive to adapting their messages for different audiences. They need to work smarter and leverage technology to enable them to spread their leadership influence wider.