Not so long ago, to build an effective team, many people would have said it was necessary to all be gathered in the same location. If you think about the full talent life-cycle of running a team, handling attraction, recruitment, on-boarding, engagement, performance and so on all the way through to exit remotely and in a way that build team cohesion and productivity it’s a pretty daunting set of areas to work through.
Despite the huge variety of technological communicative methods that are at our disposal today, there is still an underlying suspicion that a remote team is in some way inferior to one that is physically in attendance together. Perhaps the problem lies in the word remote and our tendency to assume that this implies a feeling as well as a location. Putting it that way, maybe we’re better talking about distributed teams rather than remote?
However we choose to describe it, the fact is that these days anyone who is working outside of a key-worker role is almost certain to be working collaboratively with colleagues in other physical locations – whether that entails someone in a neighbouring building or the other side of the planet. The importance of having a close, cohesive, goal-oriented team is just the same in this dynamic as for those working in the same office. And getting it right can be even more important.
In many organisations, even before Corona, today’s teams could comprise members from different cultures spread across various time zones speaking diverse languages. Now, given that even those who previously co-located can no longer do so, it is quite possible that many of the team members have not met face-to-face to some time. There may even have been people who joined the team since lockdown began, meaning that they are faced with forming relationships at a distance with people they have never met.
Whatever the organisational structure, setting up and managing a team that is dispersed across multiple locations can present even the most experienced managers and team leaders with significant challenges. Here are just a few of the questions that beg consideration:
- How do you ensure everyone feels they are being treated fairly and equally?
- How do you ensure individuals do not feel excluded or isolated?
- How do you keep every member of the team on track and focused on the overall goal?
- How do you ensure that anyone new you bring on board fits well and is able to contribute quickly and effectively?
Let’s find some answers, helping you keep that global team cohesive and motivated.
HIRING THE RIGHT PEOPLE
Having to hire people you can’t meet makes it more complex to ensure anyone new you bring into your team fits well, but there are ways to handle this. Attention needs to be paid to the recruitment process and types of questions and assessments used within it ensuring that you have a way of selecting for some of the areas listed here. Getting this right means that once you have your distributed team operating well, as so many of them now are, you can keep it that way.
When thinking about this, taking a digital first approach is important. There are specific tools and approaches that can be used well if set up correctly for digital use, which can then be flipped to face to face when the time comes much more easily than designing for a face to face process and then achieving the reverse.
BUILDING YOUR TEAM
Every team comes with inherent strengths and development areas. When thinking about a distributed team set up, some areas of competence are more important than others. Here are some key characteristics to think about:
With a distributed team, you will not be co-locating day in and day out, so members need to be self-motivated and independent. Those who need constant feedback and encouragement to achieve anything will require more focus and attention and that may be hard to provide on an ongoing basis.
2) Results orientation
You need people who are comfortable with working to specific performance objectives and, ideally, who are eager to play a part in defining these. The only way to monitor performance is by assessing those crucial KPIs.
3) Great communicators
This doesn’t just mean people who are personable and affable, although those are certainly valuable qualities. Team members need to be comfortable communicating through technologies such as Teams, Zoom, Skype, Slack and so on. This means that being able to compress long conversations into short bursts of communication, knowing how to write well and knowing how to listen actively to others through electronic means are all key skills.
4) Honesty and transparency
A high level of trust is essential in any distributed team. Members of this type of team need to know they can trust teammates to get on with the job at hand and to communicate openly and honestly if any problems or challenges arise. Any form of collaboration is more difficult to achieve if honest and transparent communication does not underpin it.
DEFINING THE GOAL
We have mentioned goal orientation several times; defining a team goal is a fundamental prerequisite to success as it adds clarity and energy to the work of any team. There are two aspects involved in this. Firstly, it is great to create a shared-view of what the team goal is. Co-creating a team charter defining why the team exists and what it is setting out to achieve can help with this. This then can be tied to individual objectives for those within the team. As every MBA student knows, these need to be SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-bound).
BUILDING THE TEAM DYNAMIC
Excellent — so now we have some ideal individuals and a goal towards which they are all working. But how do we develop this into a cohesive team that is greater than the sum of its parts? Relationship building between team members is enough of a challenge when they are in the same room, but it is even more complicated for people scattered across different locations.
In the context of distributed workers, it is more difficult to monitor friction between team members or slumps in morale from certain quarters as you have no visual clues from reading body language or perceiving interactions. There are some other warning signs for which you can be on the lookout, however, such as reduced output, a reluctance to engage in communication or a lack of contribution when it comes to new ideas.
In the 1960s, Bruce Tuckman published his forming, storming, norming, performing model of team development and this remains as relevant now as it ever was. Just because you can’t take the team out for a few drinks or the occasional lunch, it is still possible to get them to bond. Of course, it would be ideal to have a meet-up at least once a year if budgets and travel restrictions permit; but even if not, consider setting up a virtual team room where people can interact to discuss non-work related topics, from the latest sporting events to birthdays.
Be sure to make as much use of webcams as possible too i it is far easier to bond with a face than just a voice over the phone.
Finally, everyone needs feedback, and it is particularly important when working in a distributed location to know how you are doing. Keep in regular contact with everyone, whether they are across the office or in another time zone and remember to be consistent and fair with every member of the team.
Feedback is a two-way street and the final point I would make it that if you are a team leader, you need to be as open to feedback yourself as you expect your team to be. Relationship breaks that come with getting defensive, angry, or fixed in your viewpoints when someone is trying to offer you alternatives are hard to undo and simply act to undo much of the effort you’ll need to place into building a high performing team.