The capability to manage a distributed team is not in everyone’s experience. We need to support all our people with the skills to manage and be managed.
Stop worrying about whether your employees know how to work at home. The safe answer in 2021 is that they know how to work anywhere they need to work. (However, you could make sure that you better support those in need).
The biggest worry for organisations is whether management is up to the challenge of working in 2021. Distributed team leadership has traditionally been something that people experience later in their careers, usually when people are asked to be managers of other managers. Many early career managers are used to having their teams around them in one location. Enabling them to have the skills of those who manage managers will be critical to their ongoing sense. We need to start viewing our distributed workforce as a team of managers.
Supporting the transition to a more complicated distributed form of management requires a number of new skills from managers. We have to bring these junior managers to a much higher level of capability quickly. The challenge of distributed management to support distributed work is not information technology, it is human technology:
- Dramatically Increase Deliberate Communication: A distributed team can’t watch a manager at work. They don’t get casual conversation. Managers of distributed teams need to overindex their communication and choose their messaging carefully to improve clarity and understanding. If you aren’t saying your message so often that it bores you then the messages may not have been understood.
- Moving from Delegation of Tasks to Delegation of Outcomes: A distributed workforce can’t check-in on every task throughout the day, even with chat and collaboration apps. Managers need to delegate the whole outcome along with clear measures of success and give employees the autonomy to deliver that goal. That will help those distributed employees to manage their work flexibly with a view to outcomes.
- Create a Coaching Culture: Coaching is critical to support distributed teams. Coaching is far more powerful than direction when you don’t understand the exact circumstances on the ground for a team member. The burden of coaching does not have to fall on the leader alone. Encourage peer coaching and an openness to get help and assistance with the challenges of work.
- Practice Empathy: Without your team around you, they will not derive their motivation from your energy and work ethic. With limits on your capacity to push, you will need to work with the distributed team to understand their drivers of motivation. Coaching will help but this will be multiplied by a focus on your employee, their purpose, their goals, their concerns and desires. In a distributed work environment, managers need to move from a transactional relationship with employees to a deeper relationship powered by purpose, shared goals and empathy.
- Build Capability: When it is harder to see the work, you need to spend time assessing capability and developing the skills of your team. You cannot assume that people understand how to translate outcomes into activity. Managers need to assess capability, develop skills and continue to coach the development of the necessary skills to achieve outcomes and fulfil strategy.
Work has changed irrevocably. Managers now need to practice the new skills to manage distributed teams. Far more than choice of technology, these skills will shape your team’s success in the future of work.