Remote Management. Trust

In our last article we talked about some of the common challenges that might appear when managing a distributed team. If you have a closer look at such situations and try to find something common about them, you will notice that they are all based on two main aspects:

In our last article we talked about some of the common challenges that might appear when managing a distributed team. If you have a closer look at such situations and try to find something common about them, you will notice that they are all based on two main aspects:

  • Trust – What can you do to make people follow you and do their best? Or how can you make people trust you as their manager?
  • Rules – Entailing from the previous point. People believed you, and you believed them, but how can you make them understand what and how they should do something?

Although I will review these two aspects separately, they are very closely related and it is rather difficult to separate them. Speaking about Trust, I’d like to discuss the soft skills which any manager should master in order to have power and authority within a distributed team. And when speaking about Rules, I’d like to focus on the manager’s process skills.

If there is trust, it will be much easier to motivate people to perform their tasks, but without rules you will constantly lose your way, fail to meet each other’s expectations, and eventually everyone will lose faith. On the other hand, if there are rules but no trust, the mechanism will work only because of your will power and continuous external motivation and control of people.

Trust

There is a notion call “trust credit” When you start building a team or you join an already built team, you will have a certain level of trust from the team. It could be high or low. And it is determined by many factors: your position, team members’ experience (if any) of working with you in previous projects, your charisma, etc. It’s a kind of a first impression. Similarly, you have a certain initial level of trust for the team. I will try to give some recommendations on how to raise the level of trust for you as manager.

1. If you have an opportunity, visit team members at their location

Nothing can increase loyalty better than a personal visit. It would be useful both in the initial stages of team building as well as when you are assigned to an ongoing project. Face-to-face communication on business matters (in a constructive way) and any other subjects helps break barriers that are quite common in the initial stages of team management.

2. Conduct key meetings via video conferencing:

  • Status meetings.
Discussing the project status with people, looking into their eyes, makes them feel a part of the whole team much more than reading the status report over telephone, without looking at anyone. In my experience, during status meetings over the telephone people remain involved in the communication process only when they talk about their status or there are certain triggers like a person’s name or other key words related to their tasks. Other than that, they are doing other things. It’s OK if these things are related to work, but it could be web or media surfing. Therefore, as an extension of video conference status meetings, gather people from one location in a meeting room. This will help people be “here and now,” instead of doing their tasks after they have reported their status.

  • Performance Appraisals.
I remember my experience of working with a distributed team consisting of people from various countries. In the very beginning, we conducted a few appraisals exclusively over telephone. It was very tiresome and inefficient. Sometimes it was difficult for me to understand what they were saying, and I actually relied on the team lead who could understand team members much better because of his long-time experience of managing the team. However, there were some failures in this type of communication, which I often let go because of my banal misunderstanding. The employees were a bit scared about their new manager. Their fear of being misunderstood often resulted in reading their self-assesment aloud, followed by our silent reading, and the final phrase, “OK, anything else?” After that, we radically changed the approach, focusing on video conferences, and the employees were much happier to engage in the appraisal process. They started making suggestions about how to improve project processes, and we could express our wishes concerning their future development and areas for improvement.

I think you agree that it is more comfortable and easier when you see the person and understand his or her reaction to your words not only through listening but looking into their eyes as well.

  • Feedback Sessions. 
These include feedback, problem escalation and conflict resolution. The approach here should be the same as in the case of performance appraisal.

  • Planning Meetings. 
These can be either release strategic planning meetings with key stakeholders or iteration planning meetings with the entire team. It is especially important at the initial stage when the team is being formed, to see the working environment, how people communicate with each other, who is an informal leader, etc. This will help you understand the strong and weak points of team members. And in the case of building a new team, it will also help to shorten the duration of the “Storming” phase.

These are the most important types of meetings which I recommend to conduct using video conference tools.

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3. Allot more time to communication.

Anyway, communications will obviously take a lot of time. I discuss this issue under a separate point because I want to look at communications in terms of planning and efficiency. In other words, it is necessary not only to state the fact that they take more time but try to use this additional time efficiently. One should remember that discussing an issue in written communication takes quite a long time and is not as efficient as oral discussion. On the other hand, in oral communication there is a high risk of losing some information – one could forget something, fail to transmit it or remember it... Therefore, you should find a balance between what you will discuss orally (and then record in written communications) and what you will discuss directly in written communications.

At the team building stage, you need more personal communications both inside the team and with the manager, in order to build proper and trusting relationships. At the initial stage, the manager tends to spend more time on communicating with the customer and recruiting team members. Subsequently, he/she loses control over the already formed part of the team. In managing a distributed team, it can be a critical mistake which may lead to losing the team's trust. Why? When team members feel that the manager communicates to little with them, they presume two things: Either they think that the manager trusts them very much, or they believe that no one is interested in (and needs) what they are doing. After some time, the manager notes that the existing process within the team is not efficient enough, and starts to actively interfere in the activities of the already relaxed team members. As a result, those who thought that they were trusted start feeling mistrust towards their manager, “Why didn't he say anything before, and now he is here lashing out against us?” And those who believed that they were doing something uninteresting have lost any interest in the job and either put up with the routine and do as little as possible or are ready to leave the project under the pressure of the manager’s interference in the process.

To spend more time on communications means to set the following principle: When you see that an issue can be resolved by speaking to the person involved, do it without delay and writing messages. This principle should be translated to the entire team, so that not only you follow it, but team members as well.

Another way I can recommend for making communications more efficient is to encourage people to share information. This of course refers not only to distributed teams but to teams in one location as well.

4. Remember, the work done (its amount, quality, and meeting expectation) is more important than the time spent on it.

Managers who do large amounts of work (spending a lot of time on it) start looking at other people from the perspective that “one must work all the time while in the office” and “if you are not working, you are wasting your time in the office and should be given more tasks.” When the manager cannot see employees, the desire to load them with more tasks becomes even stronger just because it is impossible to understand what they are doing at the moment. If you feel like that, you should certainly change such a behavior pattern. Once again, it is the work done that matters, not the time spent on it.

Vadim Kachurovsky

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