I have an office with my name on the door just like my father used to have. My office is 2,700 miles from my house or the length of the longest non-stop flight in the continental United States. With that kind of commute, you might understand why I am only working from that office one week out of the month. Here are some suggestions based on my experience on how to manage a team when you can’t just walk into their cubicle.
1. Hire The Right People
If you have people who you wouldn’t trust to stay focused on work in a normal work environment then one or both of you working out of the office won’t make that situation better. A great knowledge worker can often be more productive working at home, but one who needs to be micromanaged should not be hired in any situation. In general, more experienced people will work better in a virtual environment.
2. Make The Goals Clear
Let’s assume you won’t be micromanaging people. That means that they need to be able to make decisions, at least some decisions without you. That means that they should know their current priorities, but it will also be helpful if they understand the business reasons of why those are currently the top priorities. If a new task comes their way and they can’t get a hold of you, will they know how to prioritize it?
3. Time is a Bigger Barrier Than Distance
Time-shifted work is a bigger barrier to a team dynamic than the distances involved. Where possible see if people are willing to time shift to maximize the common hours. If people on the West coast are willing to get up a bit earlier (I got up at 5 am this morning and was online by 5:30 am) and/or people on the East Coast or Europe are willing to work a bit later (I have a business development co-worker in London who tends to get online in the evening local time) this will aid communication.
4. Face Time is Important
I schedule a Skype video conference once a week with each of my direct reports. Sometimes we do a call instead, but there is value to seeing each other face to face on a regular basis. I also travel to Boston once a month.
5. Have a Sense of “In the Office”
When I start work in the morning I connect to two chat rooms. One room has my team members and one has my team plus members of the product team. I start each day by greeting the team as a way of letting them know I am now available. Similarly, when I leave work at night I say goodbye. If I leave the keyboard for more than 2 minutes I usually change my availability setting (I use the Mac program Adium) to say I am not available. If my availability light is green I want you to have a good sense that I am “at” work and that I will respond promptly.
6. Know When to Call
In my last job, my entire engineering team was semi-virtual. Many lived within commuting distance of our small office but would only come in about once a week for meetings. One continued problem I had was trying to convince people that chat and email are great ways of communicating but there comes a time when you need to pick up the phone and have a conversation. My rule of thumb is when I see the second or third email come by and we seem no closer to an answer then it is time to call someone.
7. Have an Issue Tracking System
Don’t try and manage all the issues of who should be doing what in email. Have a system where you can clearly see who owns which issues and what the history is of a particular issue. This is particularly useful in my business which is software development but I would recommend it for all knowledge workers.
8. Have a Shared Email Protocol
When I read an email from you I should be able to tell:
- who has action items as a result of this email
- what the action items are (numbered lists are a good thing)
- when these action items are due
Try and address an email to the owner and copy those who you want to keep in the loop. An email going to more than one person may muddle who is expected to take action.
9. Use The Appropriate Communication Tool
Even if I am in the same room with you, if I have a complicated URL to send to you I will cut and paste it into an email or a chat window. Speaking a URL and trying to carefully get all the letters, numbers and punctuation right is a waste of time.
If you are trying to describe something graphical like the layout of a document or web page then use a screen-sharing app like Skype and point.
Email is a great tool for communicating things that someone needs to know in the next hour or so but don’t assume that everyone will see the email in the next 5 minutes.
If you have information that has long term value like things you need to do each time you hire a new team member, then think about creating a wiki for keeping shared knowledge. How to restart a server or who to contact when the building alarm goes off should not only be stored in Bob’s email box.
More and more businesses are finding that virtual teams are advantageous, useful or at least unavoidable. Allowing a team to be virtual, at least some percentage of the time, can even increase productivity if the team is managed appropriately.
[I wrote this article in 2012 when I was a Director of Engineering at TripAdvisor.]