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Multinational firms have a track record of managing dispersed workforces. For years these companies sought to leverage all the benefits that a global workforce has to offer. Today, smaller companies that are still finding their remote management sea legs can look at some of the collaboration principles that multinationals employ for managing teams working around the world.  

Before the pandemic, the term “social distance” carried negative implications in a team building context. Social distance describes the sense that teams are isolated from one another. Work behaviors that create social distance are meant to be avoided. Managing a dispersed team means implementing practices designed to close gaps in physical space by creating a virtual sense of proximity.      

Proper use of “instant” and “delayed” communications 

Thought leaders in global business administration, like Tsedal Neeley at Harvard Business School, coach managers to carefully consider the tools teams use for communication. All forms of communication come down to two types – instant and delayed. Video calls and chats are tools for instant communication; e-mails generally are delayed communication tools.   

In her Harvard Business Review article , Neeley cites Forrester data showing how Information workers, whether they are dispersed locally or globally, tend to over-rely on delayed communication. Almost all employees use e-mail, but only about a quarter took advantage of videoconferencing. Granted, these numbers were captured before the pandemic, but this illustrates an inefficiency that remains pervasive for companies large and small.  

One big challenge for management to solve is ensuring employees are using communication channels that match the goals of the message they are sending. For example, instant technologies like videoconferencing are most effective for persuasion. When you need to convince someone to adopt your viewpoint, an instant technology is probably best — a call over Zoom, Skype, Slack — whichever video collaboration tool a company has built into to its stack. In contrast, employees would use e-mail, a delayed form of communication, for sharing information that doesn’t necessarily need a response right away. 

Many of us probably use e-mail as a mode of instant communication from time to time. Management consultants cringe at this practice because it creates a culture of obsessive inbox checking. Misuse of instant technologies is disruptive as well, and must be reserved only when a quick response is important. Generally, if you anticipate communications to take more than a few minutes, it’s respectful to schedule a phone or video call ahead of time.    

Build workplace flexibility 

The concept of workplace flexibility is similar to what we might call work-life balance or flexible office arrangement. It is the idea that companies must be willing and able to adapt to change about how and when employees deliver work.  

Naturally, workplace flexibility is a hot topic this year. The pandemic forced many organizations to be flexible or else lose productivity altogether. Companies with a strictly local workforce found themselves managing dispersed a team, and for many, workplace flexibility became understood as a productivity driver instead of a work perk for employee retention.  

Management consultant Sandra Henke, Group Head of People and Culture at Hays, a global recruitment firm, discusses how global firms balance employees’ workplace flexibility needs with the need of building company culture. Some companies implement core hours where staff needs to be available. Others reserve in-person gathering for high-level quality work. Whatever the policy may be, it’s important that companies signpost their values to make clear the goals around those policies.     

During the pandemic, companies seeking to implement greater workplace flexibility might implement do so in number of ways. At the very least, employees might be given permission to apply PTO to work shorter days or truncate their work week if needed. Many people have been unable to travel for pleasure and may need a nudge toward taking their time away. Removing rigidity around how this time off is used is appreciated during times like these.  

Parents working from home with children in remote school appreciate a flex schedule. For example, working from 6-9 a.m.  and resuming after lunch to work 1-5 p.m.  Mid-morning can be for troubleshooting their student’s issues with Zoom or Google Classroom and fixing lunch. The idea is that you hire the best in the business and trust them to deliver their best work – whenever or however they can.   

Providing tools and support for the job  

If working from home for an extended period of time, it is professional courtesy to build out a dedicated spot for conducting remote work. Employees don’t need to have a walled-off home office per se, but it’s better if it’s a place for work and work only – not the kitchen table, or bed. Anywhere they can be away from distraction and get into a flow state when needed. A work table or desk anywhere in the home is fine – large enough for a laptop and docking station and perhaps an extra monitor, headsets, webcams, and any other computer peripherals essential for completing work tasks.  

Company IT departments must rise to the challenges posed by supporting a remote workforce.  Deployment of cloud-based collaboration tools and productivity applications may require migration from existing on premises solutions. Scaling up network infrastructure is probably on the agenda if employees need to access the company datacenter. To make sure employees home networks are up to par, companies might put requirements on speed, bandwidth, and an IP phone installed by their Internet service provider.    

Leading by example 

Small- and medium-sized businesses face many of the same challenges as a multinational firm with a workforce dispersed across the globe. It is up to leadership at any company that completes work outside one central location to help employees reenergize, reorganize and connect meaningfully while they are at work. That means everyone from the top down must embrace the same measures – whether that’s about the proper channels of communication, being encouraged to step away when needed, and ensuring that teams have – and use – the right tools to get the job done.  

Adam Lovinus

Author Adam Lovinus

A tech writer and Raspberry Pi enthusiast from Orange County, California.

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