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Remote control

Managing remote teams is a new skill facilities managers need to acquire if service levels to clients are to be maintained, says Gillian Hayter, a director at training and development consultancy Reboot

The way of working within facilities management has changed beyond recognition. With the growing trend towards outsourcing, shorter response times and the increasing cost of space, many organisations have teams that are based nationally and internationally with rare face-to-face contact with co-workers and managers. This means that the old rules of management no longer apply.

If you see a team member less than bi-weekly, you probably consider them a remote worker. They may be based within your office or on the same site, but if your contact is mainly by phone or email, you need to learn new skills to manage remotely.

Facilities management is a special case because it frequently involves large numbers of teams based off-site. The exponential growth of outsourcing is leading to more staff working on clients’ premises in dedicated facilities teams, often wearing the client’s branded uniform and working different shift patterns from co-workers on other contracts.

You may be the line manager of staff based at a partner’s premises, but they wear that partner’s uniform, respond to the site manager there, and see the partner’s staff on a day-to-day basis. Issues can arise over budget spend, attendance, the need to return to the parent office for meetings and training, and holiday arrangements.

These factors may be less of an issue if you have a well-established contract or staff have been subject to a TUPE agreement, but even that can cause issues within the team. When problems arise at a distance and out of sight, it takes good skills to manage the remote team well.

‘As long as they are doing their job.’ How many times have you heard this from managers of remote and flexible workers? It may demonstrate trust, but it doesn’t demonstrate responsibility – and a hands-off approach may be missing problems as they develop. If you haven’t set standards and targets, it’s hard to manage and measure performance, particularly if problems do develop. If you don’t understand the way your remote teams work, it is also hard to spot changes in behaviour.

Managing remote teams involves all the skills you use to lead your local team. It’s the way you apply these skills that makes the difference.

Remotely-based staff have to deal with a range of preconceptions. It only takes a few missed calls for others to believe you are not working. Remote staff often feel outside the team – out of sight, out of mind. It can also mean missing out on professional development and other opportunities. Remote workers closely associated with specific contracts are often overlooked by senior management and can miss out on promotions or further training. All these things can make team members feel isolated and affect their decision-making.

For an outsourced team, regular communication is the key to understanding issues with partners and celebrating success. So make every contact count. As you may not be communicating with remote team members regularly and in person, all contact time is important. If most team meetings are via phone or videoconferencing, make them worthwhile and productive. Set meeting standards and stick to them.

Use available technology for meetings, scheduling, and reminders. Ask for discussion topics in advance and circulate them. Stick to the agreed agenda. Do not allow people to be side-tracked, or one individual to dominate. It will simply bore others and cause distractions. Virtual meetings are now commonplace, so if you have a team member who consistently fails to dial in or regularly has problems, you need to resolve these and set your expectations of attendance.

Understand the workload. It may be that the workload for a new contract is higher than anticipated or changes in established SLAs have gradually increased over time. This can lead to declining performance, missed deadlines, increased workload and stress. Again, regular contact is the key, and if you can’t adequately address issues virtually, you need to pay a visit or get a team member with experience to visit and discuss issues, and possibly share ways of resolving issues.

Create a sense of team. You can form a great team bond, even from a distance. This shouldn’t just be you and direct reports, but the whole team together. You need to look at your office team and find a way to replicate socialisation. Create virtual watercooler moments by having chat rooms, or daily posts that are not work specific. Celebrate personal landmarks, just as you would in the office. Learn about your team, their cultural needs and pastimes so that news can be shared.

For team meetings, open the meeting 15 minutes early to allow people to have a discussion that’s not on the agenda or maybe not even about work. Include ‘check-ins’ that give people a chance to talk about how they are doing, both at work and privately.

You are the manager. Your team has a job to do, and so do you. One of your roles is to manage. Problems start to arise if you haven’t set agreed targets or fail to monitor, or you are not checking attendance. You are not showing a lack of trust by checking attendance. You do this for office-based workers, so do the same with remote team members.

It helps to check if your organisation has a remote workers policy that includes performance measurement – usually it’s based around health and safety requirements. The policy needs to be detailed and allow you to monitor and fairly manage your remote team.

It’s important to be consistent, particularly when managing a mix of office-based and remote workers. You need to avoid any suggestion of bias and inequality.

The office-based team may believe (wrongly) that the remote members of the team take advantage of unmonitored arrival times and take time off, particularly on a Friday. The reality is probably that the team members have to struggle with demanding clients and increased responsibilities. Consistency in the way you manage is vital, and the key is to set standards and agree expectations for both remote and office workers.

The next time you arrange a meeting with your offsite team, consider if your way of managing is suited to the requirements of your team, and what you need to do to improve performance and the wellbeing of your team. Then make sure these changes are built into future meetings.

About Sarah OBeirne

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