One of this years great challenges for me has been that my team is spread out geographically over five countries and two continents. In addition, a lot of the guys work from home and don't get the opportunity to interact face to face with other team members on a regular basis. There's of course a lot you lose when this happens, walking down the hall and asking how someone is doing and taking them to lunch is just not possible and that makes it that much harder to build the strong personal relationships that are so critical on a high functioning team. I linked to a post about managing teams across timezones a while back here but since then I've learned a lot and have had to take on the challenge myself. Compared to the team I managed earlier where most of the team happened to sit in the same hallway to where most of my team today is thousands of miles apart has indeed been a difficult task. The challenges are in fact different in some respects from what one would expect. Of course, there are the obvious issues as well. One of the critical issues is how people learn. Many people learn best when they're working on problems hands on and through mentorship; this of course becomes very difficult when there's no geographic proximity. Everyone is different and that leads me to my next insight that I've learned about: not everyone is suited to working in this type of an environment. Some people truly do thrive being on thier own and can effectively plan and execute what they need to while others need a lot more guidance and hands on interaction. Something definitely to think about when you think about a position that may involve this kind of arrangement. This past week I was able to get a lot of my Europe team together in London for a few days and it was a truly great event! Certainly a highlight for me; being able to spend some quality time with my team outside of work or projects and just being able to get together. Of course, in the current economic climate; this kind of thing becomes even more and more difficult because of cutbacks in discretionary travel budgets as we try and do the right thing for the company (which I fully agree with and support!). I've also been talking with some other managers about the challenges of effectively managing remote teams and how to deal with the various issues that can of course come up from time to time.
Context & Subtlety
I find one of the toughest things to deal with is context and subtlety. Sometimes we don't want to upset our managers so we try and hint at a problem rather than call it straight, and as managers we're also of course guilty of the same thing sometimes. This subtlety of course becomes orders of magnititude harder to decipher over a so-so VOIP phone connection for an hour a week as opposed to over coffee in the afternoon breeze. Context also is a problem because sometimes we forget that the person we're talking to doesn't have the same frame of reference when we mention something. Since we don't have the same frame of reference, we arrive at a different conclusion than you may expect. The best and simplest way I can visual this is ....say we're both standing on a game board that is numbered... you're trying to guide us both to square "15". You're standing on square "10" so you say "Ahead 5!". Well, what you forgot was that I was standing on square "5", not "10", and therefore when you expected us both to end up on "15", we actually ended up 5 squares apart, at "10" me and "15" for you. Similarly, when talking over the phone (or really any conversation I would suggest) make sure you're speaking from the right context and then proceed to guide the other person where they need to be; and then join them...rather than assuming they are thinking from the same point of view.
Another nuance to think about is personality. Of course in the tech world, coming across slightly socially awkward geek/introverted personalities is absolutely not rare :) (I'm one myself I must admit) but it can certainly complicate things on a team like ours. What it can also lead to is the individual feeling that they are not "heard" because all the hints they've been dropping aren't getting addressed when of course others on the team have no idea what hints they're talking about. In this situation, my advice is simply to speak up; hints alone are sometimes just not enough and direct/head on action is sometimes required. I find that whenever I have open, direct and straightforward discussions with someone, it seems they tend to be the most productive and rewarding ones. Of course sometimes it can take many weeks or months for some people to feel comfortable enough to speak this way, but it is worth the effort!
Taking into account culture is another subtle nuance that teams have to think about. In some cultures, its simply rude to say something bluntly and to make direct eye contact; whereas in others if precisely that is not done you may be seen as "weak" or "uninterested." I've noticed that beyond ethnic/country cultures though, a company and team culture also develops over time and that can add another layer on top that makes things even more interesting. For example, at Microsoft - we have our own culture that we like to think supersedes others, but in reality think of it more like a thread that's part of the fabric we all weave. Sometimes there can be conflicting priorities, for example where in one being direct is rewarded and expected while in another the expectation is the complete opposite. I myself have lived in four countries in my life, and all of them I would say being significantly different in many ways (Switzerland, Pakistan, Canada & the US). For the most part, it has been enriching and something I value, its given me a unique perspective I believe that is part of me, and something I can leverage and apply when working with different people from different backgrounds.