When I’m on a plane—while I’d like to use few hours to catch up on my sleep, as soon as we reach 10,000 feet, I reboot my computer and dive into the day’s work. I can’t afford to waste any time when my team of associates, office personnel, road warriors, and remote office dwellers is geographically dispersed across many markets and countries. With my virtual team relying on me for approvals, input, and guidance, it doesn’t matter that we’re separated by thousands of miles—I’ve learned to adapt my management style to ensure our goals are met.
No, it’s not easy leading a team this dispersed, but over time, I’ve found a few solutions that work. To begin with, whenever I wake up in the morning and I am feeling negative and at risk of having a bad attitude for the day, I call upon my Dead Mentors Society. These are the three people who were my mentors who have died and who believed in me when I didn't, saw a future for me when I didn't, and, to be honest, loved me when I didn't. In addition, when managing a virtual workforce, there are a few more practical tips for making it a success too.
Promoting Personal Connections
Since I am in a leadership position, I also take on the role of motivator and connector. So, even when my staff is geographically dispersed, it’s important to cultivate a team environment where my associates feel connected to me and to each other. A culture of teamwork promotes accountability, responsibility, and a sense of support, rather than a disjointed “every man for himself” attitude.
To foster this sense of teamwork, I start by encouraging my associates to communicate with each other via social media. For example, I suggest they tweet an article that a colleague was quoted in, post a holiday greeting to a co-worker’s Facebook page, or connect on LinkedIn. I encourage people to take continuing education classes as a team. And to top it off on a personal note, I absolutely never miss a birthday.
Since I can’t just swing by my associate’s desk to talk about an upcoming project, it’s important to keep all other lines of communication open. Maintaining a constant dialogue via phone, IM, email, and other technologies helps minimize miscommunication—which can often lead to unmet expectations and failure to deliver quality results.
For important conversations about strategy or specific projects, I always opt for phone calls. In fact, I have standing weekly calls with each of my direct reports to discuss any issues he or she may be having. For team meetings, I rely on video conference calls (we have quarterly Skype meetings), so my team gets face time with one another.
Of course, coordinating meetings and conference calls introduces another challenge entirely: time zones. To minimize confusion, we choose one universal time zone. We use our Kailua-Kona headquarters’ HST zone so that whenever a timeframe is referenced, no one is left wondering, “Is that 4 PM your time or my time?”
Providing Feedback and Recognition
When a big chunk of communication is done through email, it’s easy to let messages sit in the inbox, under the guise that I’ll “get to them later.” This can be frustrating to associates, since by the time they hear back from me, they may have already received an answer or moved on to the next part of their project. So to avoid this backup, I strive to provide immediate feedback as the work is delivered.
Along similar lines, I make sure to always acknowledge good work and provide constructive criticism in real time, not days or months later. When I’m not regularly face-to-face, it can be easy to let things slide, but to ensure positive progress, I provide this consistent communication.
And this recognition doesn’t end with me. To ensure my team’s good work is recognized all the way up the leadership chain, I have a “highlights callout” on my agenda where I showcase recent accomplishments to our executive team. Even though my associates aren’t present in the office, this ensures that their work is still visible.
Embracing Creativity and Flexibility
With no teammates around to chat with during the day, remote associates tend to feel isolated. And it turns out, those “water cooler” discussions with colleagues are actually pretty useful—they double as impromptu brainstorming sessions that often result in valuable and innovative ideas for the company. And when working from home, distractions—like the barking dog next door or the noise from the dishwasher—can seriously hinder an associate’s ability to produce quality work.
So to encourage efficiency and creative ideas, I provide my associates with an alternative office solution, like a co-working space or a Regus Business Center. This gives them access to a professional work environment and a place for spontaneous networking—both of which make a huge difference in productivity.
This type of work space is especially useful for associates who spend a lot of their time on the road. It’s important to provide access to professional services like private meeting space, reliable WiFi, printers, etc., so they have all the tools they need to do the job no matter what city or country they’re in, or visiting.
I definitely urge my associates to collaborate and network with others while working from these alternative office spaces. They feel more like a part of a team, they bounce ideas off of others, and they even learn about new business opportunities.
The key to managing the modern, mobile workforce is to focus on cultivating teamwork, creativity, and, ultimately, productivity. With constant (and meaningful) communication and the right resources, I successfully lead my virtual team to success. And let’s face it—this type of mobile leadership is something more executives will need to embrace, faster and sooner then later!
John S. Rabi
Chief Executive Officer