The Care and Feeding of Remote Documentation Teams
Managing remote documentation teams can be a rewarding undertaking. Like anything else, being prepared by anticipating needs, issues, and problems will help avoid the pitfalls of such a monumental task. Each remote site offers its own unique challenges to the documentation manager, whether the sites are at opposites sides of the city or different locations around the globe.
At a previous employer in Austin, Texas, I coordinated the documentation content written by subject-matter experts in Arizona, Hong Kong, Japan, and Scotland, but I didn’t have near the obstacles I had when I had to develop and manage documentation sites in Austin, Dallas, and Cape Canaveral for a different employer. Sometimes it’s a more challenging task the closer these sites are to a centralized location.
Here are three important considerations for those who have been called upon to develop or manage documentation teams in remote non-international locations (international teams are the subject matter for a different column). We’ll explore each in a little detail.
- Managing and mentoring new hires and “legacy” technical writers
- Establishing a unified “team” environment among remote sites
- Aligning the team’s operation with the strategic, functional, and corporate cultural needs of the business
Managing and Mentoring New Hires and Legacy Technical Writers
Over the course of my career, I’ve interviewed hundreds of people for various positions (many of them for remote sites), and one of the things I and the interview teams had to wrestle with regarding a promising candidate was: “How good a fit will this person be for this team?” It is extremely important to assemble a team of skilled, talented individuals who share a spirit of cooperation and of “covering each other’s backs” during peak periods of project activity. Such a team generally has more success with self-management and also requires fewer “unnecessary” interventions (trips you have to make to the remote site) from you because they are better able to resolve issues among themselves.
When assuming management responsibility of remote team members who report to someone else within the company, it’s wise to keep the best interest of the employees (learned through conversations with former managers and with the employees themselves) and the corporation at the forefront of any changes you plan to make. If you have to make changes, do your best to ensure that the changes simplify things rather than make them more complicated-and announce those changes in person whenever possible. If you demonstrate fairness and firmness immediately, you’ll find that the management end of things is a bit easier as the remote team grows.
Your role as a mentor to all team members is one in which you share your knowledge and experience with employees. You teach by serving as a model; you encourage by supporting and challenging all of your teams; you counsel by listening and advising; and you befriend by accepting the individuals on your teams and relating to them on a personal level.
Establishing a Unified Team Environment Across All Sites
This can be one of your toughest jobs as documentation manager. Establishing a unified team environment across all sites involves not only using all communication media available to you but also ensuring that the corporate culture and structure effectively support the remote teams. All too often, “remote” is conceived by those “closer” to the corporate culture/environment (the corporate headquarters) as “different from us.” Such an attitude is one that is divisive and corrosive to the success of remote sites and the teams operating within them.
One way to prevent such attitudes from spreading is to use every communication means available to you. Frequent communication among all sites helps minimize the “us and them” attitude. Use emails and phone calls for daily communication with the team leaders at the remote locations. Use teleconferencing once a week or so for project updates (people can relate voices with names) and videoconferencing on a regular basis (to relate faces with names and voices) to promote the unified team concept. Monthly videoconferencing would be great if your company’s IT infrastructure and budget can support it.
If your company has quarterly or annual employee meetings, encourage executive management to include the remote site teams either by videoconferencing or flying them in if the remote sites are not too geographically dispersed. The emotional and psychological benefits of meeting and interacting with members of other teams help solidify the unified team concept and reinforce the necessary alignment of teams with corporate strategy, function, and culture.
I’d go one additional step and see if the enterprise would support an annual meeting of all technical writers and managers, complete with presentations and facilitated discussions on strategic planning, functioning in a team environment, and other topics. At one time, Motorola supported the Motorola Technical Communicators Association (MTCA), a company-wide organization that met the two days immediately following the annual STC conference in the same city. The presentations and informal discussions from technical writers around the world and in different business units showed where internal standards were needed and where the Motorola technical communications community could offer solutions that crossed many business units.
Aligning the Team’s Operation with the Strategic, Functional, and Corporate Cultural Needs of the Business
Some of this information was covered under the previous topic, but let me add that aligning the team’s operation with corporate objectives sometimes means that you as documentation manager will have to serve as a filter for negative gossip, corporate political battles, and other distractions. Such background noise can interfere with the successful operation of remote teams. You can’t completely eliminate such distractions, but you must be able to put a spin on such news that reinforces the best interest of the team members and the corporation.
The Cape Canaveral site manager of a previous employer of mine was also an executive vice president and vice president of Knowledge Systems. He managed a team of a dozen or so very brilliant software developers who were hard at work getting the company’s first in-house product ready for launch. At the time, the executive management team was undergoing internal struggles, and investors were demanding changes, but this vice president shielded his team from all the unnecessary rumors and conversations so they could focus on meeting the product launch schedule. He’s hailed as a hero by his team and others in the company for his ability to put the interests of his team and the company first.
I’m running out of column space, but I think that the one resounding theme in this subject is people management, and people respond to the best of their ability when the corporation shows that it cares and helps nurture that success.