Best Practices for Managing Dispersed Teams

dispersed teams

You manage a team of people who are working from multiple locations and time zones. Initially, everything looked really good. You developed the project plan, created timelines, task lists and met with the team to kick the project off.

And it was a really strong start–at first.

But after awhile your team members lost energy, stopped hitting it out of the park and began to miss meetings. And now you’re concerned. You’re looking for solutions, for tips or ideas on how to get the project back on track and manage your dispersed teams successfully.

For someone who is managing a virtual team, this is a familiar story.

Leading a virtual group can present real challenges. Maintaining clear communication, engagement, and focus can be tough. And, for more and more managers this is a daily reality as the number of companies with remote workers continues to grow. “Despite occasional stories of a company ending its remote work program, the long-term trends all show steady growth in the number of people working remotely,” writes Sara Sutton Fell, founder, and CEO of FlexJobs.

According to a recent study published by Upwork.com; globalization, skill specialization, and agile team models will change the workforce in the next ten years. The second annual Future Workforce Report found that 63 percent of companies have remote workers but more than half – 57 percent – lack the policies to support them.

But, as I’ve said before, leaders are discovering innovative ways to rally and connect teams no matter how far away they are from each other. Whether or not actual policies exist, there are best practices for leading a team of remote workers successfully and building a sense of trust, belonging, and commitment to the team, the project, and the organization.

In my workshops about building and leading effective virtual teams, one of our first activities is designed to increase awareness of virtual team characteristics and complexities. We talk about what works well and what must be done to achieve positive results. Over the years I have learned some of the best practices for managing dispersed teams. Let’s a take a look at three of them.

Create Context

As the leader, it’s your job to provide the context for the team. In addition to sharing the project specifications and requirements, you need to paint the big picture for them and bring the importance of their roles to the forefront. Help your employees understand, not only what their roles are, but why they matter–and why each of them benefits individually from being truly engaged in the team goal overall.

While this may sound like Leadership 101, a dispersed team needs help understanding the company’s vision, the purpose of the project, and behind-the-scenes information they miss by working at a distance from the home office. Teams need to know exactly how they are expected to collaborate. Remember, working remotely, while offering fantastic benefits to both employees and organizations, can provoke feelings of isolation and disconnection.

As part of creating context, set clear and measurable performance goals and make sure your team understands how those goals figure into the project and the organization’s plans as a whole.

It’s on you, as their leader, to help the members of the group connect the dots, get to know you and each other and feel like part of a team, working together toward a common purpose.

Communicate, Maybe Even Over-Communicate

Communication is one of the first things to go in a virtual team setting. The inability to read non-verbal clues presents hurdles to dispersed team members that don’t exist for in-person teams. It’s all too easy to misunderstand a text or email because virtual communication lacks the non-verbal clues we get from face-to-face interaction. It’s better when communication is through video chatting tools like Skype or Slack.

Since 55 percent of communication is non-verbal, 38 percent is para-verbal (how you sound), and 7 percent is verbal, removing 93 percent of the context of communication forces a disproportionate dependence onto the verbal spoken word. Also, physical distance can contribute to avoidance of conflict, and it’s easier to default to “dealing with it later” if an exchange was tense or unclear. If you don’t handle a conflict proactively, unresolved negativity can fester.

So set up the ground rules with regular check-ins using a video conferencing tool. And make a point of meeting face-to-face at least once during the project–that contact will increase your team’s productivity by as much as 50 percent. Remember this guideline: Make a point of intentionally connecting with the people on your team three times as often as you do with the people you see spontaneously in the office. This effort will pay off for you in increased engagement and strong connections with each of your team members.

I like to remind people of the ten times rule: phone calls are ten times more effective than email (or text), and face-to-face communication is ten times more effective than a phone call. So just remember, “ten times, ten times, ten times” on the communication front.

Cultivate Community and Respect

We all work better when we feel like we are part of something larger. In addition to creating context, cultivate a feeling of community for your team. Develop a strategy to pull each of the team members into the group and then cement that feeling of community by acknowledging the team’s efforts and celebrating its successes. Work to develop a feeling of trust between you and your team and between the team members themselves. Building trust in virtual teams involves two different types of trust: cognitive (in team members’ heads) and affective (in team members’ hearts.)

Take the time to nurture these new relationships and try to understand what motivates each of your employees to perform well. Ask them what they consider appropriate incentives, and what aspects of the project they find compelling.

Make a point of being accessible to the team, and allow one-on-one time for each of your employees. Be considerate of their obligations, work commitments, and especially the time zones they are working in. Set meetings and calls as thoughtfully as your own schedule allows, and include group meetings on a regular basis as a way of touching base and offering encouragement.

Ask your team for feedback. What works for them? What isn’t working? What can you improve or create differently? If you encourage feedback and listen thoughtfully, not only will you learn important information about your employees and the project, but you may also find new leaders within the group; people you can work with and those you may promote for future leadership roles.

Be respectful of the individual group members and the team as a whole. This feeling of respect and community will go a long way toward building trust, and engagement, from a team that takes pride in delivering top-notch performances.

A version of this post was first published on Inc.com

Photo: Thought Catalog on Unsplash

Do These 3 Things and Transform Your Virtual Workforce

Image-of-working-at-home

The shape of organizations worldwide is changing. The virtual workforce is almost more common than not these days. In fact, according to Gallup’s State of the American Workplace report, published in 2017, “…from 2012 to 2016, the number of employees working remotely rose by four percentage points, from 39 percent to 43 percent, and employees working remotely spent more time doing so.”

There are plenty of reasons for this rapid growth–extended market opportunity; increased efficiency, productivity, innovation, and synergy; access to a broader pool of talent; better effort, performance gains, and job satisfaction; and more cost savings.

But for all the positives, certain negatives come with not sharing a physical space with your team and colleagues. “When it comes to virtual teams, if you’re out of sight, you’re also out of mind. While more and more people are working remotely, our recent study suggests that unless we take extra measures to build trust and connection with colleagues, we pay dearly for doing so,” write Joseph Grenny and David Maxfield, in an article for the Harvard Business Review.

The truth is, no one has truly figured out how to lead a dispersed team smoothly, but we’re getting closer. Leaders are discovering innovative ways to rally and connect remote teams no matter how far away they are from each other.

Here are three actions successful leaders are taking to manage the virtual workforce efficiently–no matter how far-flung.

1. Create context.

Context is the foundation from which we derive meaning from what other people say. In the past, members of a team would see each other every day, know what was going on in each other’s personal and professional lives, and be aware of each other’s thoughts on happenings large and small. In today’s virtual workforce environment–not so much. Often, team members are mostly strangers to one another and may feel disconnected from the overall team or company vision.

So leaders need to help individuals and teams in the virtual workforce see the reason why they need to care about the project and their part in it. They need to be sure to voice the overall vision and share the company, team, and individual goals. They need to be explicit about why the team is working together and how it aligns with business goals.

Leaders need to pinpoint how each team member will collaborate and what’s in it for each region, area, or individual. If the leader doesn’t know, they need to hold a conversation and ask their team members why this project is important to them. What benefit do they see to themselves and others? And, then they need to ensure needs and desires are being met.

2. Cultivate community.

People work harder when they feel they are a part of something bigger than themselves. Thus, an effective virtual team leader works to create a team community and identity. This can be done with physical objects, like T-shirts or pictures. And it doesn’t have to be expensive or fancy. I had a colleague in San Francisco who had a dressed up banana for the team mascot. People loved it!

Or it can be done with more creative concepts, such as developing a project slogan or name. For instance, if your project is dealing with the government or is particularly sensitive, you could call it “Project House of Cards.” Or people could be given nicknames based on their roles or strengths.

It’s also essential for leaders to create expectations around communication. What’s going to be your primary mode of talking with one another–chat, Slack, phone, or email? Will you always use video for conference calls? Do you have contact hours to accommodate team members who work in different time zones? Is the team expected to meet face-to-face once a quarter?

Leaders also should provide guidelines to support the team’s well-being. For example, don’t schedule meetings in the middle of the night for those who live halfway around the world. Or don’t ping a teammate with an urgent request on the weekend. This is very important for fostering a culture of respect, as well as one that supports a balance between work and life.

3. Celebrate successes.

Unfortunately, in a lot of organizations, you only hear from others when there’s bad news or criticism. But this type of culture is a death knell to morale and productivity. An effective way to lead virtual teams is to ensure all successes are celebrated. You can even devise a systematic approach to honor them with a weekly award or special meeting.

In addition to creating an environment where successes are shared, effective leaders also make clear how to advocate for these wins. They promote their team members to others within the organization and help their teams learn how to promote themselves.

The positives of leading virtual teams far outweigh the negatives–and by taking these three actions, you and your team will experience far fewer bumps along the road. And, if you need help with your team? Contact me.

A version of this post was first published on Inc.

Image: “Working at Home,” Michael CoghlanCC 2.0

 

3 Ways to Overcome Barriers in Dispersed Teams

Virtual or dispersed teams are quickly becoming the new norm. Consider this stat from a 2013 Global Workplace Analytics Survey, between 2005 and 2013, the number of employees who worked virtually grew by 80 percent.

There are lots of reasons to work virtually—extended market opportunity; increased efficiency, productivity, innovation, and synergy; access to a wider pool of talent; better effort, performance gains, and job satisfaction; and more cost savings.

But with all these advantages, come disadvantages, too. Sometimes doing business where you cannot meet with people face-to-face is challenging. Participants in a 2012 Society for Human Resource Management survey cited time differences, distribution of work, differences in cultural norms, and technology as barriers to success. If you work on a virtual team, chances are you’ve encountered these obstacles—you’re used to getting up early or working late to do a meeting, dealing with bugs in video chats, or having messages lost in translation over email. The truth is, while more and more teams are going virtual, no one has figured out how to do it right yet.

Still, there are three key actions you can take to lead your virtual team to success:

Cultivate trust. Approximately half of human resources professionals in the 2012 survey said that building trust is an obstacle that prevents them from being successful. With dispersed teams, it’s critical to spend extra time building trust. Have exercises where people disclose about their families, friends, hopes, dreams, and fears so people get to know each other more personally. Also, ensure trust by making sure people have clear and defined roles so they know how to operate as a team. Another way to build trust is to share leadership responsibilities in a particular task or piece of the project so everyone has a sense of ownership and shared responsibility for success. To learn more about building trust, visit one of my earlier blog posts.

Communicate. Communicate. Communicate. When sharing a physical space, team members have spontaneous interactions all the time whether at the water cooler or during an office pop-in. You don’t have that when working virtually and that can make things very challenging. Studies have shown that the tone and gestures you use when communicating are more powerful than the words you actually speak—and this paraverbal communication can be almost nonexistent for virtual teams. Thus, leaders need to strive for three times as many touch points with dispersed team members. If possible, shoot for phone or video chat. Research has shown that face-to-face conversations are ten times more effective than phone, and phone conversations ten times more effective than email. The jury is still out on the effectiveness of video calls but I’d venture to say it’s better than voice calls. When communicating, virtual leaders must not only listen for the words that are or are not spoken, but also the tone, pauses, inflections, laughter, and perhaps the toughest of all…silence.

Also keep in mind that individuals—and cultures—all have unique communication styles. For example, some cultures, such as the Vietnamese, are more indirect while the French are more direct. Some cultures prefer a lot of communication, like the Chinese, whereas others, such as Americans, would rather cancel a meeting if there’s nothing on the agenda. When you were born can also impact how you communicate. Baby boomers are more autonomous and don’t need as much remote relationship building whereas millennials who’ve grown up in the age of social media and texting are used to high contact. It’s paramount for virtual leaders to be mindful of personalities, cultures, and preferences when managing communication.

Get buy-in. When working apart from your colleagues, it can be really difficult to feel like a team. That’s why virtual leaders need to work hard to get buy-in to the team and the cause. They can do this by constantly creating context. By this, I mean, talking about the big picture and how everyone’s actions are helping achieve the high-level goals. They also need to cultivate community. One way to do this is by creating a company culture, whether it is by having everyone wear a company t-shirt on Fridays, hanging company values in home offices, or sending chotskies with company colors or mascots emblazoned on them. These tangible items make a virtual community feel more real. Finally, many of the most successful virtual workforce leaders recognize and internalize a simple reality: Their leadership alone is not enough when it comes to large, networked organizations consisting of people who sit within the bounds of traditional organizational structures but who are also part of the new virtual workforce. These leaders co-activate their leadership. They co-opt others to make things happen—putting themselves aside at times, asserting their authority at other times, but recruiting others to lead at all times.

If you have remote employees, one of the most important steps you can do to lead an effective team is to drop the “us and them” mindset. Even if you have several employees sharing a physical space with you, if you have remote team members, then you’re all working remotely. You need to make a concerted effort to become one team that’s working to overcome the barriers together.

Preventing Virtual Team Implosion

You brought ten bright people together to calibrate milestones. The team was dispersed internationally and throughout the course of the project you met by teleconference… The deliverable was a mess. Clearly, something fell through the cracks.

With virtual teams, you can’t just put members together and expect productivity. Let me tell you, that just won’t happen.

You are going to have get in each team member’s face, literally and figuratively.

How Was Information Delivered?

What technology solution did you use? If words and images are garbled, inconsistent, or simply not there, your project has taken a step backwards.

Here are a few products that are commonly used by virtual teams:

Bluejeans This cloud-based video collaboration tool appeals to IT departments because it frees up server space. Most importantly for you as a virtual team leader, it helps your team people see and hear each other and easily share graphics.

Webex This is one of the best known and oldest collaboration tools. Webex recently redesigned its User Interface to be more streamlined and easy to navigate during videoconferencing. I have found the Webex mobile apps to be more versatile than some of the newer products on the market.

I am especially intrigued by Immersive Telepresence, which utilizes sophisticated technology and, occasionally, robotics to make the videoconference experience mimic the “in person” conference experience.

Other virtual teams I have worked with have used Citrix Go To Meeting and Google Hangouts.

Look Me In The Eyes!

You may have all the bells and whistles your IT budget can buy, but making the most out of your virtual team depends on so much more than the technology. Your team members need to:

Get buy in. Who among us hasn’t heard “this new system is going to make our lives easier”? Sometimes the only person truly invested is the one who made the decision to buy it. As with any change, people are more likely to be positive about learning new systems if they are given a role in choosing or implementing it.

Communicate intentionally. Some keys to keeping your virtual team on track are the habits that help communication flow easily, such as introducing yourself before speaking, and deliberately building in strategic silences. (Strategic silences are important because members can’t easily catch the “I am done now it’s your turn” cues that are typical of in-person conversations.)

Develop discipline. As with an in-person meeting, assign roles such as “moderator” and “timekeeper” to structure the meeting. With one person concentrating on helping everyone use their time effectively, other members can focus on the business at hand.

And then there’s the devil of the virtual team world: Multitasking. Establish rules about multitasking at the outset and enforce them.

From choosing the technology to using the technology appropriately, a lot of preparation goes into virtual team management. Don’t short-change your employees by skipping steps.

Your ten people are logging in. Are you prepared?

Building Trust in Virtual Teams

Organizations utilizing virtual teams can attest to the economic advantages of working virtually. Companies lower overhead costs and increase satisfaction among employees who are motivated by flexibility and autonomy. Why then, when there is so much evidence regarding the benefits of virtual teams, do employees continue to express frustration with the arrangement?

According to the current research, the success of a virtual team (90%) depends on building trust. A virtual team may be able to devise a contingency plan when the technological components of virtual work do not function, but if a team has lost (or never achieved) trust, it may be destined to fail.

Building trust in virtual teams involves two different types of trust: cognitive (in team members’ heads) and affective (in team members’ hearts). Stephen Covey’s four primary building blocks of trust further define how to expand upon the cognitive and affective parts of trust. Jot down these four characteristics and spend a few minutes taking inventory of your team’s trust level:

Competence – Do you have the right people, with the right skill sets, in place to do the work?

This is a cognitive trust measure. We have all been on teams, virtual or not, where the members were fun engaging people but not capable of getting the job done. Further, inability to communicate erodes trust among team members. Perhaps that is what the two-thirds (69%) of American employees who responded to a Harris Interactive Poll about virtual work had in mind when they declared that management needed to communicate better in order to keep them engaged.

Consistency – Are you consistent in tone, managerial approach, and message?

This is an affective trust piece. Inconsistent management practices certainly are not limited to virtual teams. However, a virtual team has more to lose when messages are misplaced, people are unclear how to proceed, and confusion prevails. How you remain consistent in the delivery of messages and information will drive a significant part of the success of your team. Yes, I do mean you; there are parts of managing a virtual team that will fall squarely on you, more than in a traditional office. People thrive on consistency.

Compassion – Do you nurture each individual and put yourself in their shoes?

This is an affective ingredient of team chemistry. Every workplace has seen demonstrations of compassion, perhaps in expressions of sympathy when a relative has died, in looking the other way when a coworker experiencing deep personal troubles spends an extra five minutes on an unscheduled break, or when life’s challenges take precedence over the work to be done.

Your virtual team member needs your compassion, not only for “life challenge” times like the example above. Everyone on a virtual team is making adjustments to different rhythms, more physically isolated environments, and shifting sets of expectations.

Commitment – Do you demonstrate your commitment by what you direct people to do and how you make them feel about it?

Your virtual teams need to be absolutely sure of your commitment, both to them as a team and to the resources needed to help make their virtual team effective. Virtual team members need to know you are committed to you as an individual; it can be easy to lose sight of your personhood when you are usually represented by a string of characters on an email.

One way to demonstrate your commitment is to refuse to rely on email to communicate. Pick up the phone, send a skype invitation, look your employee in the eyes.

The Trusting Team

The process of becoming (and remaining) a team where members trust each other and trust you to lead them will not always be straightforward. The road to effective virtual teamwork is scattered with unexpected delays and frustrating times of gridlock. However, if you are driven to incorporate competence, compassion, consistency, and commitment, you stand to get more done, with less cost, and more satisfied employees!

I train extensively on the topic of Leading Virtual Teams. For more information, please contact me here.

Creating a Successful Virtual Team

Global Travel

A physically dispersed workforce presents unique challenges. And although we’ve seen several high-profile companies discontinue their virtual work programs, a 2013 Global Workplace Analytics Survey reports the number of employees who worked virtually grew by 80% between 2005 and 2013. Without a plan to help staff work and manage in a virtual environment, your business bottom line can be affected.

This post is the first of a four-part series addressing virtual teamwork, the misconceptions, and the strategies for increasing the potential for efficacy of virtual teamwork.

What Exactly Is A Virtual Team?

Powell, Picoli, and Ives define virtual teams as “as groups of geographically, organizationally and/or time dispersed workers brought together by information and telecommunication technologies to accomplish one or more organizational tasks.”

Organizations that opt for virtual teams frequently share these three primary objectives:

• Survival in a hypercompetitive market
• Ability to deliver results faster
• Capacity for encouraging individual creativity

Some organizations are fully “virtual” while others incorporate aspects of virtual work into their operational plans. Whenever workers are “dispersed,” the effect on work processes, team culture, and timely accomplishment deliverables can be dramatic. Whether the dramatic effect stands to build or destroy is something you as a manager can impact.

In my workshops about building and leading effective virtual teams, one of our first activities aims to dispel misconceptions and increase awareness of virtual team characteristics:

It is a mistake to believe that virtual teams will function appropriately when left alone.

“Out of sight out of mind” does not apply to virtual teams. As Jon Bachrach states in this post, “Effective team leadership is key to establishing a well-organized virtual business.” It would be naïve to assume that a virtual team does not need an attentive leader since it is impossible to “look over their shoulders.” While the virtual team member is likely to thrive on an ability to work more flexibly and avoid the logistical hassles of commuting, work-related errands such as dry cleaning, and waiting around for face-to-face meetings that do not materialize, that member needs to feel included, needs to have clear guidance regarding expectations, and needs to be able to communicate through an established chain of command.

Dynamics between members of virtual teams are more complex than those in face-to-face teams.

The inability to read non-verbal clues presents a hurdle to virtual team members that does not exist for in-person teams. Since 55% of communication is non-verbal, 38% is para-verbal (how you sound), and 7% is verbal, removing 93% of the context of communication forces a disproportionate dependence onto the verbal spoken word. Physical distance can contribute to an avoidance of conflict, it’s just easier to default to “dealing with it later” if an exchange was tense or unclear. If not handled proactively, negativity can fester.

Additionally, the organizational structure differs with virtual teams. Compared to traditional teams, virtual teams support flatter organizational structures with dim lines of authorities and hierarchies. Virtual teams do not, by their nature, accommodate the types of informal information exchanges that occur naturally in a face-to-face workplace.

Delays can occur in fixing problems or reaching consensus, whereas in traditional teams a meeting can be called at any time of the day when all the members are present together in the office, resulting in quick decisions and problem solving.

The success of virtual teams is not driven by technology.

It is easy to assume that having the right digital tools, a conference call system that connects everyone easily, and email will make the virtual team indestructible, but technology is only 10% of the success of a virtual team. In reality, technology only assists virtual teamwork. How a virtual team functions is largely dependent on the human side of the coin – the amount of trust, collaboration and knowledge sharing members enjoy has far greater impact on the success of a virtual team.

In upcoming posts:

In upcoming posts, I look forward to delving into the technology needs of virtual teams, how to nurture trust among virtual team members, and organizational considerations when building virtual teams.

For now, consider what Sebastian Bailey said in this article, “Virtual working saves money, is better for the environment and gives staff the flexibility they crave, so it’s no wonder that more and more organisations are encouraging it.”