The Battle of the Satellite Offices

Remote work can create cross-country rivalries

By Eve Glicksman February 18, 2020
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​The San Francisco team thinks their Chicago colleagues check out early every day and do less work. The Chicago employees rail that California staff get all the recognition and promotions. Both groups are part of the same department, but resentment between them sizzles.

This workplace tale of two cities is "super common," said Bill Berman, Ph.D., founder of Berman Leadership Development LLC in New York City. "Each group thinks the other does less and is less valuable but more valued." The result is teams lacking a shared purpose and not trusting colleagues.

Distance, restructuring and time differences can make it hard for managers to create a sense of community. "When you have a conversation for two minutes after a meeting, the people on the remote call are out of the loop. That little bit of social interaction can make a difference in how people feel about each other," Berman said.

And the number of employees who don't work face to face is soaring. Worksites are becoming more dispersed, with satellite offices around the world. The financial and human resource benefits are obvious. Yet the toll of people feeling marginalized by their geography shouldn't be minimized, said Darleen DeRosa, Ph.D., a leadership consultant with Spencer Stuart in Stamford, Conn. These employees feel excluded, invisible and mistreated by the larger group, so they seek the safety of like-minded people. The negative venting, gossip, rumors and backstabbing that can go on in these cliques creates a toxic environment for the entire team.

Managing a Team Divided

DeRosa prefers the term "sub-team" to cliques. The mistake companies make is creating remote worksites and assuming the same management dynamics apply for them as at company headquarters, she observes. Leaders need formal training to build trust and relationships with people working remotely.

"It requires extra measures and skills to manage conflict from a distance. Conflicts in virtual settings are harder to detect and can fester longer," DeRosa said. When people working from afar can't read body language, they are more likely to perceive slights and take offhand remarks personally, for example. Signs of a potential problem include diminished productivity, absences at meetings, people not helping one another, turnover and micromanagement of an offsite group.

Sometimes a leader's seeming favoritism for a team on location is unintentional. Remote teams may not get as much attention because they are "simply out of sight, out mind," Berman said. The inadvertent results may be that employees working at a different site than the manager don't get the same development conversations or plum assignments. Or it may just be more convenient for managers to rely on people down the hall.

Making the Effort

If managers aren't intentional and don't gently force interactions between groups, workers will remain in their sub-teams. "Managers have to work extra hard to pay attention to people they can't see," Berman said. "Leaders need to observe who hangs out with whom. Is everyone's voice being heard?"

Since HR may be the first to hear rumblings of fragmentation, it may have to take the lead and gather data to show the manager how the resentment is affecting performance. HR can support inclusive behavior by adding team building to its performance metrics.

Communications technology is key in resolving schisms, Berman said. HR should coach managers who are not comfortable with Slack, Yammer, Zoom or project management software.

Video technology can create a virtual watercooler for people at different locations, DeRosa said. She suggests "digital bonfires" where small groups meet in a virtual environment.

Managers should visit all sites at least twice a year, Berman said. "Ask if there is something you can do to help them feel more connected." Some managers select an informal leader at each site to bridge gaps between visits.

Periodic visits are less about exerting control and more about paying attention, said Guy L. Smith, a reputation and crisis management consultant in Greenwich, Conn. "Show up and listen. Understand their challenges. Headquarters may make decisions without their input, so help people on the front lines understand why certain changes were made—not 'Here's a product; sell it.' "

Formerly the executive vice president of Diageo North America, a liquor distributor, Smith came up with a unique way to get offsite teams working together. "I wanted to do something different that was intellectually stimulating and would touch every member of the staff in the same way." When he told the entire group they would be writing a book, "They looked at me like I had just landed from Jupiter."

The resulting publication was a compilation of 41 personal stories: If It's Not Impossible, It's Not Interesting: Leveraging Personal Experience to Create a High Performance Team (Lulu.com, 2012). Each person on the team told a story about a time when someone—a parent, coach, teacher, friend—told them they couldn't do something but they did it anyway and succeeded. Professional writers were brought in to help.

"Everyone went away becoming a published author with their name on the book cover," Smith said. "It motivated them as a team."

Eve Glicksman is a freelance writer based in Silver Spring, Md.

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