Motivation vs. Management: Leading in the Mobile Era

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By Jennifer Gerves-Keen

Allison is a senior leader in a large, global organization. She has 18 direct reports in five different countries and over seven time zones. She works six days a week, and sometimes seven in order to keep on top of issues and in constant contact with her team. To do so, she often starts her day at 4 or 5 a.m. to catch people before they go home, and finishes at 7 or 8 p.m. in order to talk to people at the beginning of their workday; this helps ensure that things are getting done while she is sleeping.

While many people would feel that Allison’s role is extreme and simply too much to ask, she sees it as a fact of life, necessary to meeting her objectives and manage her remote team; for her, the “extreme” is an essential part of her global role. Case in point, she doesn’t have one single report with whom she shares the same physical space, and so has needed to adapt her management style to make it work.

Whether or not Allison is exhausted eventually by her efforts, there is the greater question of underlying support for leadership in such global scenarios.

Traditional Training Not ‘Remotely’ Relevant
Traditional leadership training—even really good, progressive, science-based leadership training—is not addressing the global skills gap that organizations are experiencing when their managers are faced with managing remote teams. Whether you have direct reports that live nearby but work 90 per cent from home or employees based in regions nation or worldwide, managing remotely relies much more on written communication than face-to-face interaction, a fact that many managers struggle with.

It probably comes as no surprise that many younger leaders are more comfortable with managing remote teams. Interestingly, this is not due to their technological comfort level, so much as their ability to create relationships with individuals they may have never met, due to  the prevalence of online relationships in their lives growing up.

Core Elements of Managing From Afar
Based on my own coaching experience, there are three elements of remote management you need to keep top of mind at all times to create the depth of relationship required to inform, motivate and engage your teams—regardless of how far from your own office they might be.

First and foremost, it is obviously about the people. The team that you have working remotely will ideally have certain characteristics to be successful. Remote workers need to be action-oriented and self-managing. Not everyone thrives working by themselves with (largely) virtual relationships. You need doers, and you need to hire people you can trust—then you need to trust them. One of the most challenging parts of managing remotely is being able to trust your team without seeing them every day. If you find yourself wondering what they do all day, you will be too focused on their behaviour and not focused enough on the business.

Interestingly enough, people with solid writing ability make a big difference on remote teams. Calibre communications are even more critical when working with remote technologies. It’s not something we necessarily equate with technology, but consider how much “in-person” communication you lose when working remotely; if people cannot articulate themselves through email or social media, you will spend your time managing issues caused by miscommunication.

Build From Strong Starts
When you are hiring people to join a remote team, they will often say that they are comfortable working on their own, and they don’t require the ‘social’ environment that a conventional office requires. You need to question that. Many individuals who have never actually experienced working alone think they will be fine with it, and have the best of intentions; they then realize they cannot thrive without others around them.

Ask them about experiences they have had in life when they were completely alone—how did they feel, what did they do? You need to really understand the individuals you hire for a remote team as no amount of personality or charm will help them if they are not capable of self-motivation and working by themselves.

Only the Tools Needed to Thrive
The second element in successfully managing a remote team is taking a look at the tools you will be using. Tools to communicate effectively with each other, to share documents, to have meetings…you choice of tools will either assist your team in getting their work done, or frustrate them to the point where they will become a serious source of distraction. Slack, Trello, Google docs, Zoom, Goto meeting, HelloSign are just some of the few great tools that are at your disposition as a manager.

The final piece is around how you get things done. Managing people that you can’t necessarily see or sit down with in real time requires more thought around processes and the way you want to work. In that sense, managing a remote team actually makes you a better manager because in order to make it work, you are required to put more thought and focus into what you are actually trying to accomplish.

Clear directives, communicated outcomes and objectives, clear-cut expectations and post-project debriefs are absolutely essential to working in diverse locations. Putting the processes in place to make all that happen requires some research into what will work best, and will require you to test out certain things that may or may not work, helping you create a culture of innovation and “supported failure” for your team.

Keeping it Real in a Virtual World
One key process is a regular check-in with the entire team. Depending on the size you may need work with smaller groups and only have the larger meeting monthly. Making the most of these meetings is essential, so developing a way to create a good atmosphere over the phone or video is quintessential. It may seem a little weird, but people are often more intimated at a distance than they are in person; your job as a manager is to eliminate the intimidation factor, and your solution will depend on who’s on your team and the virtual environment you create. To create that conducive atmosphere, find topics that spark natural conversation to get things started until people get used to speaking out easily.

In addition, while it carries a greater cost, bringing the team together for an annual “in-person” strategy session can do amazing things to build your team and help them perform to their highest level. As good as a virtual relationship may be, once you’ve met someone in person, everything tends to go up a level. Be very strategic in planning your in-person sessions as you want to focus on challenges or opportunities that will benefit from you all being in the same room together.

With the tools and technology available, managing remote teams has already become a reality in many organizations, and the effectiveness can only improve. By being deliberate and focused on managing your team in a different way, you should be able to successfully make the transition. You might even be able to sleep soundly until 6 a.m. from time to time.

Jennifer Gerves-Keen, MA, PCC is a coach and consultant focused on collaborating with her clients to develop people in effective ways that actually make sense.

(PeopleTalk Summer 2016)

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