Working with distributed teams
In the era of virtual reality and ubiquitous computing, it is no surprise that more and more companies are going virtual when it comes to teamwork too. Geographically distributed teams hold many advantages, but the transition from working in brick and mortar offices to the virtual desk brings some challenges. Here are some things to consider when setting up distributed teams.
Distributed teams come in a plethora of shapes and sizes, so generalizing is difficult. However, they tend to share the same advantages:
Tapping into the global talent pool. Establishing distributed teams in your company will allow you to hire the best talents from around the world, no matter if they come from a different part of your country or from another continent. So-called digital nomads, people looking exclusively for remote work, have become quite common.
Happy employees. Enabling your employees to work from home, or indeed from wherever they want, allows for a much greater work-life balance. With reduced or no commuting, your remote workers will have more time to spend with their loved ones, and more time to follow a healthy lifestyle, the benefits of which are obvious.
Saving on overheads. Distributed teams are a particular advantage for start-ups as they involve the lowest cost and risk, especially when employing freelancers. In addition, they also provide an excellent alternative for well-established companies who are beginning to outgrow their brick and mortar offices and have to invest in additional office space.
Focused work. If you have worked in an open-plan office before, you will know how painfully distracting sharing your workspace can be. High heels tapping on hardwood floors, co-workers sneezing and coughing, constantly ringing telephones and people stopping by for a quick chat are just some of the small but frequent interruptions that can make you lose focus again and again. When working from home, your employees can create their own office space and set their own rules, which, when followed properly, will allow them to really focus on their work and thus produce better results.
Doing the groundwork
When setting up your distributed team, always bear in mind that the organizational framework you provide will be the basis for everything else you do. You will have to create new rules and policies, which will have a great impact on your team and should be communicated clearly. Within this organizational framework, you will encounter human as well as technological challenges.
The organizational framework
Time-based vs. results-based
When asked why their organization doesnít offer home offices yet, many managers state as their main concern that they would not be able to control how much time their employees actually spend working. If this is the case with your organization, you could consider changing from paying for time worked to paying for results delivered. This works very well if you have specific targets or quantifiable work.
With other types of work, you will only be able to run a successful distributed team if you invest a healthy portion of trust in your workers. If, for whatever reason, you donít feel you can trust them, you will inevitably resort to micro-management and destroy your teamís productivity. However, you shouldnít worry too much about this problem, because it is usually only a concern in the preparatory phase, as remote workers have actually been found to be more motivated than their on-site colleagues due to the freedom they enjoy.
Tip: In the end, no matter what time policy you go for, make sure to establish certain times when your team members have to be "at work" and reachable.
Finding the right software
Considering that a remote team is only possible thanks to technological advances, it is no surprise that you will depend heavily on these to enable your team to work together. There is more than enough software out there to support your teamís virtual collaboration, but finding the right one for you will take some time and thought.
Whichever software you decide on, remember to keep it simple. Thereís no point in having Skype, Google Hangouts and Slack for chatting, and Zoom, Teamviewer and Sococo for video chatting and screen sharing, because having to choose between these options every day will only use up your team membersí valuable time and decision-making energy. Instead, invest in a maximum of two types of software that will really meet your needs. Although this may be more costly than using several cheaper ones, it is by no means wasted money, as the increase in your teamís productivity will definitely be worth it. The second software will come in handy as a backup for when the first is going through a mysteriously unannounced server update or the like.
If you have decided on your software, get your IT department involved. They will know best which software complies with your organizationís IT security policies, and they can also train your distributed teams to understand which online actions pose security risks and how things can be done safely.
Image 1: Meinrad.CCís weekly team meeting in our Sococo office
Tips for the human and technlogical aspects
Getting to know the team members
Social skills may be the biggest must-have when working with distributed teams. In a virtual environment, you donít usually get these random but highly valuable hallway or coffee pot chats. Nevertheless, you can realize these essential interactions by establishing a friendly, social atmosphere and by acquiring software that supports it, such as Sococo. This works well for team members who already know each other. When building a new team, however, a little nudge will be needed to achieve this, especially when your project has a tight deadline. A great way to achieve this is with the help of the Personal Maps exercise, created by Management 3.0 pioneer Jurgen Appelo. In this exercise, team members gather information about each other and present their results to the team.
Guide the culture development
Your distributed team will never experience your organizational culture as your on-site teams do. This means that, even if you already have a great organizational culture that fosters collaboration, you will need to actively generate this culture in the team. If you donít yet have the organizational culture you feel you need, this is your opportunity to start molding it from scratch in your team, and to expand it from there to the rest of your organization. Always bear in mind that for a distributed team to fulfill its potential, it will need a culture that rewards collaboration. Praise collaborative behavior where you see it, and foster gratitude and appreciation in your team. A particularly interesting way to do this is by implementing Kudo Cards, another great tool created by Jurgen Appelo. These cards can be handed out by both managers and colleagues to recognize a team memberís good work.
Provide all contact details
Little things such as having to ask for a team memberís phone number, rummage through a pile of paper or do a brief email search can be enough to put people off getting in touch, especially if itís only for a quick question. To avoid this, create a contact overview, which should at least include the following information of each team member:
- Full name (you wouldnít think this is necessary to mention, but funnily enough it is)
- Email address
- Work phone
- Private phone number for emergencies, but only with permission from each member
- Regular work hours during which he/she will be online
- Country or state he/she is based in plus time zone
Create a competence-based team chart
Say you are assembling a team of software developers or, as in our case at Meinrad.CC, a team of translation project managers. You will have highly competent people in your team whose knowledge should be shared with others and whose skills should be used by your entire team or organization. For this to happen, your team will first have to know about each team memberís skills. To create a competence chart, you can use the Personal Maps exercise mentioned earlier to gather the information you need and then simply put it into a PowerPoint presentation, ideally including the contact information mentioned above. Make sure that everybody in your team has access to this chart. You might even want to print it out and ship it to your team members to ensure they have it at hand when they need it.
Provide as much technological support as possible
Whether itís providing webcams so that you can see the face that accompanies the voice or contacting a team memberís regional Internet provider to get a special deal for a high-speed connection, always think of ways to improve collaboration. Watch out for potential technological barriers and do everything you can to minimize them.
A technological barrier can be something as basic as not knowing which software to use, or how to use it, so create an overview of the software your team will be using, along with basic instructions, and make sure that everyone is aware of each software packageís specific purpose. Keep in mind that you will need to assign a person to manage the software in terms of being the go-to person and communicating with the IT department or the software company.
Donít forget the fun
If you enjoy tech gadgets as much as we do and are lucky enough to have a generous IT budget, there is definitely something out there for you to make the distributed team experience more fun. Telepresence robots, for example, are becoming increasingly popular, and we ourselves are currently thinking about installing a touchscreen in the coffee corner, which will allow on-site employees to enjoy a cup of coffee with their remote co-workers via video chat.
Keep it real
Finally, remember that with every change, people need time to adjust. After all, you are not building a machine, but dealing with complex human networks. Cut yourself and your team some slack and, most importantly, talk about the challenges youíre facing. Share your experiences with the team and with other teams, and give each other room to vent. Ultimately, your key focus should be on how to improve the experience of working together remotely. And donít be shy about asking for help.