Perspectives: Managing home-based community teams

Managing worldwide, home-based community teams can be a daunting task for those of us used to managing workers in the world of cubicles, board rooms and coffee breaks. But there is a highly-trained, educated and specialized workforce full of willing and capable employees just ripe for the plucking if you can get yourself, and your company, into the mindset that this style of collaborating isn’t just an afterthought.

This isn’t a workaround or just a way to save money sometimes. This isn’t an option which exists only for making special concessions for certain special people. This can be, and especially in the world of global community management already is, the ideal way to set up your community teams.

However, just setting someone up with a laptop and a login at home isn’t going to get the job done. What is required is a paradigm shift in your management methodologies. You must shake yourself out of your office-based mindset and immerse yourself in the world that your moderators live and breathe in — online communities.

Community moderation teams, sometimes called mods, are the folks who oversee the activity in online forums and social media settings. They engage with users via public posts (topics and comments) as well as private messaging with the end goal of increasing the enjoyment of the individual users. Some of their main duties include policing (reporting and actioning inappropriate content), engaging individual users in discussion, praising and calling out top users and acting as officially sanctioned thought leaders and subject matter experts within the community they are moderating. The community moderation teams (typically with a community manager at the helm) also play a key role in passing along information from the company that produces the product out to the community of product users, and vice versa. As each of us has experienced in anonymous online settings, very wonderful and very horrible exchanges can occur. The community moderation team is there to guide the conversation and make order of the chaos, and they do so in multiple languages.

There are few professions where it is more important to understand the necessity of a home-based workforce than it is with professional moderation teams. Time is marching on — indeed it has already marched on; there it is ahead of you! The people who make up international, multilingual teams are working from home now. Pajamas are the new business casual in this industry. That’s the deal.

Are there one or two sizable online community programs that still think they are best serving their customers in English only or some other single language? If so, please send them my way so I can talk to them about expansion into additional territories. For the remaining vast majority of online community programs, multilingual skills (usually English +1) are a must. If you want to hire the right people who speak the right languages and are knowledgeable about the target cultures and products, if you want community coverage for activity on any website that doesn’t cease to exist after 5 pm weekdays in your time zone and isn’t closed on weekends, then you need to employ people who are working out of their own homes, scattered around the globe. Period.

Many of us got our experience managing teams in an office environment and are most comfortable using e-mail as our primary method of communication. I still believe that it’s absolutely essential to talk live occasionally with the people you manage. There is no substitute for this and any well-functioning community team must have regular live meetings (preferably with video) from time to time. However, professional moderators make their livings navigating and deeply understanding the layered, text-focused worlds of online forums and social media and therefore they function best when your regular written communication with them mirrors that style and that environment.

Think of e-mail as two-dimensional and online community environments as three-dimensional. Remember the last time you checked your Facebook account and ended up many layers (and minutes) in, and found yourself checking out the Hawaiian vacation pictures of someone you once said “hi” to in second grade? Mods’ brains work in three dimensions, and they are very comfortable discovering, documenting and searching for information in this multi-layered environment.

The difference is that they are so used to working in this world that their meanderings are a healthy mix of random research of the space and a cataloging of big-picture goals and trends of the entire community ecosystem. That’s why more than anywhere else, restricted-access, enterprise-level platforms such as Yammer are very well-received and actually used. The exchange and dissemination of project information using platforms such as these rather than straight e-mail is the most effective way to manage community moderation teams. Also, because of the robust search functions, information can also be called up when researching past topics that aren’t currently “hot” in the feed, which can help us out when more linear, targeted research is necessary.

The successful professional moderators you will come across will have many different backgrounds and living situations. From the free-spirited wanderer who makes her way around the world with her laptop and the forethought to consistently set up a structured work environment wherever she lands, to the stay-at-home parent who is moderating and managing a community after dropping the kids off at school and before soccer practice, to the freelance translator looking to supplement an inconsistent monthly income, there are many ways to do it.

One thing these people all have in common though, if they are successful in this field, is a curious mind and a desire to grow and support communities of people they will never actually encounter in real life. This is different from other employees you will manage whose jobs contain at least some aspect of face-to-face or voice contact with clients and customers.

Moderation professionals are the kind of people who enjoy writing things like “can you tell me the details of what is going on? We really want to help you out! So bummed that you are experiencing this issue!” It makes their day to read the comments of someone who is really enjoying the product and having fun within the community environment they are moderating. They live for their chance to write “Awww…YOU guys are the best. So glad you are having fun here!” They smile when they post that!

People who enjoy treating others in this way generally enjoy receiving the same treatment as workers. Managing community teams, and especially those with workers native in diverse languages and cultures, requires expressing emotion and care in the written word. How many e-mails have you received where you thought, “Wow, what’s his deal? Why is he being such a jerk about that?” only to talk to said jerk in person, hear his intonation and realize, “Oh, that’s what he meant! He’s not a jerk at all.”

When you are managing a population of remotely-based, nonnative English-speaking community workers, you must take even more care to establish the relationship with those workers using the power of the (digital) pen. You must speak the language of community, a language which exists without the benefit of the spoken word. It’s no accident that emoticons and links to YouTube videos are prevalent in online forums and social media channels. Sometimes the difference between offensive and funny is a simple ;-). Sometimes the difference between (the perception of) a dismissive mea culpa from management and a heartfelt apology is a link to a YouTube video of Brenda Lee’s timeless classic “I’m Sorry.”


Mod your mods as you would have them mod

By using platforms set up in the style of social media rather than e-mail for the purposes of communication, you have a natural way to model best practices for your team. Any interaction with your team in that space potentially demonstrates to them how you would like them to interact with the community they are engaging in as moderators.

For example, oftentimes in the course of any project the mod team will be fielding questions about ongoing bugs or process issues which are beyond their control. They might be passing this information up the chain to a development team, but they aren’t going to be getting the results as quickly as they would like in order to help their community members, and as a result they will continue to be bombarded with complaints and dissatisfaction, which can eventually wear them down. It wears them down because they actually care, and this is a good thing.

But as a result, they might post something on the internal communication feed venting their frustrations. As a manager, this gives you the opportunity to step in and address their concerns in a way that is public to the entire mod team. You will thus be able to model through your response the type of attitude you would like to see in your employees’ interactions with the community you’ve hired them to support. Do you just dismiss the mod’s complaint as no big deal? Do you just jump on the bandwagon and talk about how [fill in the blank] sucks and that’s why the problem persists? Or do you react in the professional, positive, informed, caring manner that you’d like your team to react in when something similar comes up during the course of their duties?

At the same time, as a manager you will come across specific examples of outstanding work by particular mods. Praise and thank these people publicly whenever you have the chance. The same kind of positive group dynamic that you would like the mod team to encourage within the community they serve is the kind of positive dynamic you can create by public acknowledgement of their successes. People who like to give out gold stars like to get them too!

In the same vein, individual mistakes by mods should be dealt with privately. When necessary, a public general message should be posted about the overall concept of the mistake so that everyone can learn from it. This is the same tactfulness and compassion you want your mod team members to employ when they interact with their community, and by showcasing this, you lead by example.

We are working in a multilingual, multicultural, 24/7 world of internet destinations. Our mindset needs to catch up with the reality of the needs, desires and style of the workforce we are attempting to recruit and keep as long-term employees, as well as meet the needs of our customers. Our clients count on us to provide continuous, compassionate service to community members around the globe in multiple languages. The technology and the employees are there — we just need to embrace them fully with a ☺.