No-one wants to be called a “cog” anymore. The idea of being a small moving part of a larger machine is both outdated and unambitious. While we still strive to work well as part of a team and endeavour to create value for our companies, that sort of soulless anonymity would be pretty unsatisfying for most of us.
Thankfully, we’ve left those 19th century ideals behind us. Many managers, however, have yet to embrace the 21st century norm of remote working. Like it or not, more and more people are describing themselves as “digital nomads”. There were 55 million freelancers working in the U.S. in 2016, which is around 35 percent of the workforce and, according to a survey by FlexJobs, 85 percent of millennials want to telecommute 100 percent of the time.
In my previous incarnation as a managing editor in a PR company, I managed a peripatetic team of writers that lived in Latin America, but traveled far and wide. Currently, I am a small business owner with team members in the U.K., Colombia, the U.S.A. and Spain. It’s clear to me that we are going to have to embrace COGS again – but this time in acronym form – if we want to succeed and build companies that work like well-oiled machines.
Clear communication is obviously key to building and managing a successful remote team. But it’s not what you say that counts, it’s how you say it. Less is absolutely more when it comes to getting an important message across, especially when a team member is in a difficult time zone.
Prioritize what you need to say: Two or three points per communication is about right. More than that and detail or important information is likely to be forgotten or glossed over.
When you’re emailing, use the subject line to highlight the key takeaways. Use bullet points to show actions and deadlines. You can also use a Gmail plugin like Todoist to assign to-do lists to team members, if you feel your message is in danger of getting lost. Bear in mind that email is getting outdated, however, and that almost 50 percent of Millennials think social tools are useful for workplace collaboration according to a study Queens University. So it might be time to rethink how you talk with your team.
Try to have “real” meetings with your team too, a lot of tone and meaning is lost in written communication and it can be dehumanising if you don’t have regular catch ups with your employees. Talking over the phone is okay, but also take advantage of video calls on Skype or Google Hangouts.
Remember to always write an agenda and summarize key action points at the end of each call via email/message. Even when you can see your team on screen, details get easily lost. You don’t want to be chasing someone up if they’re 5000 miles away and about to miss an important deadline.
Managers need to be organized wherever their teams are. But once your team is permanently outside the office you’ll need to be super organized.
Asana, Trello and Basecamp are all excellent tools that allow you to assign tasks and keep track of progress and they work just as well for remote teams as they do for office-based colleagues. I was also recently introduced to a beta trial of a Cubismore, which is an interesting mind-mapping to-do list which could also help streamline your remote collaboration.
Slack is perhaps my favorite organizational tool so far – and is especially good for sending quick messages and requests. You can set automatic reminders to yourself and other members through SlackBot. It also frees up your inbox for more important conversations, though it can get a little tedious if you keep notifications on all the time.
The hardest thing about managing people in far flung parts of the globe is cultivating a sense of cohesion and teamwork. No matter how well organized you are, or how great your communication is, without a common goal, you have no team.
You must highlight the big picture and be transparent: it’s important that everyone understands your company mission and knows where you are heading and why.
Set smaller weekly goals and larger monthly ones; with the right goals, you can improve productivity by up to 15 percent. Also stress the importance of collaboration and set up remote work groups so people feel they are working with each other to achieve a common objective. Without this people will feel alone and uninspired – and productivity will drop.
It should be your focus, as manager, to bring people together. This means inclusive communication and opportunities to take part in activities no matter where they are.
You have to forget about 40 hour working weeks and the 9 to 5 when you have a significant number of people working in different timezones. It’s just not feasible. As it’s almost impossible to see what each person is doing day to day, it’s hard to judge whether they are meeting the mark. The good news is, however, that 77 percent of remote workers report they are more productive and 52 percent are less likely to take time off.
Nevertheless, you have to find a balance by working with strict deadlines, well-defined KPIs and clear quality controls. As a manager you should be focused on results, rather than the number of hours your employees spend in front of their screens.
Of course, no-one wants a draconian work-environment, or a trigger-happy boss, but unless your team pulls together and delivers on time, you’ll have nothing to show for your efforts. Make it clear that while you expect nothing but the best, the payoff is flexibility, freedom and escape from the four walls of the office.
The future of work is even more global than it is today. Platforms like Facebook’s virtual reality Spaces, and other similar technology, herald a new era of real-time and face-to-face remote collaboration – far more interactive than the video chat software we have today.
We have to get good at managing our teams wherever they are in the world. The tools are here, it’s now time to adopt the nomadic mindset and embrace a remote-working future. Get those COGS oiled.
This post is part of our contributor series. It is written and published independently of TNW.