Lessons in remote management from the leaders of global teams

Expert leaders of global teams excel at leveraging the strengths and diverse perspectives of individual team members.
Expert leaders of global teams excel at leveraging the strengths and diverse perspectives of individual team members.
Image: Reuters/Daniel Munoz
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Quartz has written extensively about the best practices for managing employees who are working from home. But the coronavirus pandemic has upped the stakes. For our field guide on borderless teams we asked experts and leaders about the elements of global teams that, when managed well, can be instructive for the leaders of any remote team.

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Embrace different perspectives

For global teams, differences—in culture, experience, technical competencies, and time zones—are considered a strength. Research has shown that this diversity in a team’s makeup creates the potential for members to tap into greater knowledge networks, and allow for more creative and innovative problem-solving.

Effective team leaders harness these differences by considering people’s individual people’s contexts in relation to the group dynamics when creating the team’s structures and roles. “The very simple truth is that the most important tool managers have, is perspective taking,” says Mark Mortenson, a professor of organizational behavior at INSEAD, and co-director of the international business school’s program for digital leaders. “It’s about their ability to put themselves in the shoes of the people, the key stakeholders, the key people, and understand what it is that is their experience of the situation.”

NASA deputy chief flight director Emily Nelson, who has worked for more than 20 years on International Space Station operations, says that successful international teams are often characterized by a sense of humility and the ability to understand and be open minded to different perspectives. That means accepting, for example, that “when you’re talking to a counterpart from another country—if what they’re saying doesn’t make sense, there are even odds it’s because you haven’t yet figured out what they mean.”

Developing this open-mindedness has helped her be more innovative and creative in her work, Nelson says.

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Build trust quickly

Excellent communication is a foundation of remote management. But global leaders go the extra step of facilitating connections between the people they manage. These bonds, even if they are fragile, will determine how resilient a team is through periods of stress. They can be powerfully formed through conversation at the very beginning stages of a project—what’s known in the study of global virtual teams as “swift trust formation.” This is an especially helpful approach if a team is coming together to work on something temporarily.

Bonds of trust need to be kept up through conversation mediated by a team leader, says associate professor Norhayati Zakaria of the University of Wollongong in Dubai, whose research has focused on the impact of culture on the formation of global teams. “Silence is a killer in virtual teams. Swift trust is always about building that rapport via communication,” she says.

Martha Maznevski, a professor of organizational behavior at Ivey Business School at the University of Western Ontario, and an expert in multicultural global teams, calls these conversations “heartbeats” and describes them as regular, time-bound, and critically important. “Your heartbeat meetings should focus only on two objectives: build deeper relationships, and put meaning around facts,” she writes. “A heartbeat meeting should, literally, pump this lifeblood of relationships and meaning into your team.”

Kimberly Moran’s peers are in Europe, while she leads a team of 42 that manages the US operations and finances of the multinational pharmaceutical company UCB. She encourages coffee sessions between team members with the pure purpose of getting to know each other and building that foundation. “If you don’t have vulnerability and you don’t have good sharing, you don’t have the trust,” she says. “You don’t have to like someone. But if you know them and understand their story or where they’re coming from, you’re able to work together so much better.”

Trust also means giving your employees the chance to do their jobs once you’ve set the parameters and facilitated the relationships. Bob Glazer, the author of How to Make Virtual Teams Work, and the founder and CEO of Acceleration Partners, a fully remote global marketing agency, says the shift to remote work has uncovered a lot of “bad leadership—managers who don’t create good accountability, don’t create good communication systems, all they have [do] is watch over people and manage their inputs.”

Doing the opposite by creating the best environment for your team to work autonomously, as many global teams do, is just the “manifestation of good leadership,” he says.

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Consider power dynamics

For Ivan Sigal, the executive director of the globally distributed media nonprofit Global Voices, a leader of remote teams also has to be aware of the power dynamics that can play out in a variety of ways—from the technology and platform that is selected by a team leader, to the way meetings are run.

“It might seem incidental, but it’s actually super important,” Sigal says. “The platform you’re on and the decisions you make about how you organize your knowledge and who gets to decide that…that’s the manifestation of power.” he says. Making unilateral decisions about how a team is structured and works can send a “crucial signal” about the level of respect and sensitivity a leader has for the team, and can hurt a team in the long-run.

For Global Voices, it’s about preparing for and running meetings in a very thoughtful and structured way. “The thing that we’ve learned over the years is that more structure facilitates more open speech,” Sigal says. “My experience is that in the absence of structure, unspoken or existing power hierarchies and power norms become dominant. So if you want to assure or encourage equity [and trust] around expression, you really have to externalize the rules [and] build a structure into the way conversations work so that people know… not just that they’re welcome, but that they’re encouraged to participate in different ways.”

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Revisit your team’s purpose—and don’t work in a vacuum

Managers can’t just rely on initial discussions and nascent bonds of trust. For teams that are going to work together long term without face-to-face interaction, the purpose and framework of the team needs to be “launched and relaunched,” Mortensen says.

“You may need to go back and say, ‘Let’s do a quick process check. Let’s have that conversation. How is everybody feeling? What’s going on, what’s working, what’s not working?’” he says. “Clarity around norms and rules and everything are important, but they have to be adaptable. You have to have a model in place where you can make those shifts. That involves having a process to really force you to do that.”

The more a team can connect with each other and regroup on a goal—particularly if everyone is working remotely—the more trust builds.

You can never communicate too much when a lot of your work is done autonomously, as it is in global teams, says Vasyl Taras, an associate professor of international business at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

He says one of the killers of distributed teams is when people become paranoid that their co-workers are “free riders” who aren’t working as hard as they are. People already overestimate their contribution to the team, Taras says. When they can’t see what another person is doing, they tend to undervalue what that person is doing, even if it can be objectively measured, and may start free-riding themselves. Coordinating and making clear what work is being done, by whom, and when, can help prevent this from developing.

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Evolve structure to be flexible

Global teams thrive on structure and stable work flows. Clearly defined roles, responsibilities, norms, and workflows—what Mortensen calls “guardrails”—help them navigate the invariable tensions that arise from their geographic, cultural, and even technical differences.

Mortensen advises that managers of any kind of remote team create structure and be transparent about it: “Think through the points where you usually have friction, and make sure there is clarity around all of the operative elements there,” such as deadline, responsibilities, roles, and accountability, he advises. “It can still be that the roles are flexible and adaptive…but you want to at least make sure you’ve had that conversation so people are starting on the same footing. Then you can diverge.”

Maznevski says that successful global managers are able to “share leadership” by delegating project and output-related tasks (scheduling meetings, keeping track of deadlines) to team members, freeing the leader up to focus on goals and progress—and developing the pipeline of leadership at the same time. “Virtual team principles are self-reinforcing,” she writes. “If the team has a strong heartbeat and disciplined work flow, team members will be highly motivated and cohesive. They know that by sharing the work of running the team, the leader can take them even further.”

Once managers create this structure, share responsibility for it, and make it flexible based on individual needs, and the demands of the work, the team is better able to cope with the challenges that lie ahead. One of these challenges going forward will be the hybrid approach to the office and work life which Covid-19 is creating, and which Mortensen predicts will become the norm. Managers will need to factor in that their employees are going to be switching between different environments as they work.

“Individual managers, individual leaders, have to understand that particular hybrid context that they’ve got to play with,” Mortensen says. “And they have to be monitoring it, because it’s a constantly dynamic system that’s moving.”