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The Key Management Skill for the 21st Century: Leading Remote Teams…

The future of work was a major topic at SXSW this year, where I participated on a panel on the topic. Afterwards, a member of the audience approached me eager to learn how to become a better manager of remote teams.

“I know I need to learn this skill to help my career,” she said. Yet, she didn’t know quite where to turn, and her company wasn’t providing her with the guidance or mentoring she needed.

It’s easy to overlook how essential the skill of remote management is because, for many, the classic picture of a “manager” still means someone sitting at a desk in an office surrounded by (or overlooking) their team. If you search for “leadership” on a stock photo site, you’ll find lots of staged photos showing someone in a suit standing in front of a group of people seated around a boardroom table. That image, however, is extremely outdated.

Related: How a Company With No Office Has One of the Best Company Cultures in America

In fact, most leading business schools teach a course on managing remote teams, or include it as a major part of their management and leadership curriculum, because they recognize how critical it is to successful leadership today.

Companies that learn how to use remote teams productively will gain access to a far broader and deeper talent pool than those who limit themselves to one geographic area. And for managers, organizing and coordinating the work of a distributed team is a crucial key to winning recognition and advancement in the coming years.

Broad economic and technological forces are rapidly reshaping the world of work. Urban centers have large concentrations of skilled workers, which encourage companies to hire locally, but also make the labor market more competitive. As the cost of living and commute times increase in these cities, companies are looking for alternatives: Letting employees work from home more often, hiring workers outside their immediate geographic area and even offering employees bonuses to move away.

Related: 20 Reasons to Let Your Employees Work From Home

Simultaneously, technologies for collaboration, such as Google Docs, Github, Slack, Skype and in some cases even virtual reality, are removing barriers that once impeded doing work remotely. These technologies make it easier for companies to contemplate hiring remote workers, not just ad hoc, but as integral, valuable members of their teams. In fact, Upwork’s Future Workforce study found that 63 percent of U.S. companies’ departments have at least one team member who works remotely. And no wonder: Remote workers often enjoy their work more and can be more productive.

So how do you do this effectively? Fortunately, there’s a large body of research out there, and plenty of advice, for people who need to brush up their remote team management skills. Some key principles:

1. Update your expectations.

The single most effective change a company (or the leader of a team) can make is to take a remote-first approach. Don’t just tolerate remote team members as add-ons to your “regular” meetings: Assume that everyone is or may be remote at any time. Subtle shifts of expectations can help a lot here: For instance, because people on a conference call or Google Hangout may have a hard time being heard, give them explicit permission to interrupt. Or, make a point of taking questions from remote people first.

Related: How to Lead in the Virtual Office

2. Focus on results.

Set expectations for output early, and reinforce them often. Focus on results. Companies that consider themselves “results-only work environments” focus on what each team member actually delivers, not on where, how or even when they work. That puts remote team members on the same footing as those in the home office.

3. Embrace technology.

Choose collaboration technologies that are simple, reliable and accessible enough for all to use easily (and frequently). At Upwork, we use Google Hangouts constantly, and every conference room is outfitted with a large screen and high-quality camera and microphone.

Use multiple technologies for redundancy (in case one breaks) and flexibility (to accommodate shifting needs). Our Future Workforce study found that 83 percent of departments use more than one type of remote collaboration software.

4. Create a “virtual water cooler.” 

Provide opportunities for team members to socialize online, for instance through Slack, to replace the “water cooler” moments they’ll be missing from the real-world office. In fact, done right, virtual communication can be even better than in-person. According to one recent study, 98 percent of employees reported that collaboration technology actually made it easier to build meaningful relationships with coworkers.

Related: 12 Tools For Running Your Business From Anywhere in the World (Infographic)

5. Keep tabs on the conversation.

Managers need to pay close attention to team communication channels, as you’ll need to be constantly adjusting, coordinating, clarifying and helping avoid misunderstandings.

6. Meet in person when necessary.

Where possible, don’t forget the importance of occasional face to face meetings for building and maintaining relationships. This is especially important for new teams, and for introducing new team members to an existing team.

As a manager, understanding how to lead a remote team and doing so effectively will likely be critical to your future career potential. More than that: A manager’s success is judged by how well they can recognize talented people and successfully engage and lead them to produce great business results. As the woman who approached me at SXSW recognized, that increasingly means recognizing and leading talent that is in another city or timezone.

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