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

Work-Life Balance is an Outdated Concept, So What Now?

Beach chairs on the evening sea coast.

Work-life balance became a buzzword a couple of decades ago. Everywhere you turned there were presentations, articles and self-proclaimed “experts” all promising to help the overworked find a better balance.

The thing is, I’m not so sure work and life are really separate concepts anymore.

More and more, work and life are intertwined, especially when working remotely, or traveling for work. And to increase engagement, more companies are making workplaces feel like “home.” “Work-Life Integration” is probably a more accurate term today, and people work every day to try to do this well. It isn’t as much a balancing act as it is an act of acceptance that balance doesn’t exist. Something will always have to give; your time in the office, your kid’s soccer game, time with your partner, or travel abroad. If you want successful work-life integration, you will need to sacrifice something.

Sure, there are still the no-holds-barred leaders out there whose commitment to work eclipses everything else and there are those who think that’s the way it has to be if you want to be successful. Some of these people might even be happy with their life this way, who are we to judge? Many experts today still proclaim it is possible to have it all. However, what exactly does “all” mean?

As leaders, we need to become aware of what’s important to us and the individuals in our team, we need to set an example, be a role model, and help them create the right situation and strategy for themselves. In my opinion, work-life integration is about setting boundaries. If you clarify what you want, create a plan, set boundaries, and manage it well, fulfillment in one’s personal and professional lives can easily be a reality.

It’s all about boundaries.

To achieve life balance, you have to set these boundaries both in your personal life and your work life. You’ll want to make deliberate decisions about what’s going to be the priority. And it has to go both ways to work out. At work, we often have to respond instantly to crises and sudden situations. Then again, sometimes your personal life is more important—your preschooler is in a theater production, a parent is diagnosed with an illness, or your eldest is graduating from law school.

The fact is, when a situation with enough importance emerges (in business or life), we make time. And you know what? The world doesn’t end. This just shows that having boundaries and stepping away is possible. Planning is key and with proper boundaries in place, it becomes easier to give attention to all areas of your life. (Nigel Marsh has a wonderful TedTalk on boundaries.)

Here are five steps to creating excellent work-life integration for yourself and your team. Share these steps with those you manage and hold a conversation about their relevance:

Define “balance.” First, you have to know what you want out of life, then you can create a clear plan to achieve those goals. If working a lot right now is important for your career growth, then that’s ok. If spending more time with your partner is a priority for your relationship, then do that. Maybe your kids need more or less attention at this point in their lives.

Communicate proactively. In some ways, this goes hand-in-hand with the above point. Talk to your family and significant other about what’s coming up on the calendar at work and speak with your team about what types of personal situations may require your attention no matter what. This can help avoid partner, manager or team resentment when various life or work events arise.

Know your own resilience level. You may be the type who can sleep little and work a lot. Or you might require eight hours and need to let your brain rest in between productive spurts of work. Maybe you burn out without regular vacation time or maybe work gives you so much energy, you don’t need many holidays. Listen to what your body and mind need and honor that.

Walk the talk. Don’t preach work-life integration and then send emails in the middle of the night, regularly stay late at the office, and text your team members at off hours. Managers are often unaware how their own behavior unintentionally sets the standard for the team. People may feel they have to respond in the middle of the night, stay late until the boss leaves, etc.

Introduce your personal life into your work life. Back in the day, talking about your personal life at work was a big no-no, but now those walls are coming down. You see more and more amusing family anecdotes or personal stop-and-think moments being integrated into presentations and speeches. The more you make your workplace feel like home (as much as your company will allow), the more balanced you’ll feel at work.

Shawn Anchor, author of The Happiness Advantage says, “When we are positive, our brains become more engaged, creative, motivated, energetic, resilient, and productive.” The idea of work-life integration isn’t just corporate lip service anymore, but it isn’t really about having perfect balance either. It’s about creating an ideal situation for yourself – accepted at home and at work – so that you can thrive both personally and professionally.

For a workshop, webinar, or speaking engagement on How to Set Boundaries and Be Happier in Life and Work, contact Melissa.

A version of this post was first published here.

 

Take a Stand Like Elon Musk in Your Workplace

Act Now

In the current political climate, corporate leaders are standing up to take a stand for what they believe in–and we can all learn from them.

Elon MuskRichard BransonRoger GoodellGeena DavisElizabeth WarrenBonnie Crater.

The list goes on and on.

No matter the politics, many people in the business (and sports) world are dismayed by the (mis)behavior of President Donald Trump.

His lack of sensitivity, empathy, professionalism, emotional intelligence, politeness–you name it– leaves many to believe his actions are anything but presidential.

For that reason, corporate leaders are stepping up to take a stand for issues they believe in like free trade, climate change, immigration, healthcare, and free speech, to name a few.

Elon Musk, the Tesla, and SpaceX CEO, quit the president’s advisory boards after Trump left the Paris climate accord, and tech mogul Mark Cuban spoke out about Trump’s criticism of NFL players taking a knee, for example.

These prominent leaders can serve as an inspiration to you, no matter your position in the corporate latter, in a time when many feel powerless and hopeless. We can learn from them how to be outspoken and make a difference in our world today.

Here are five ways we can do this:

Take a stand.

If you personally believe in something, then share it with your team–even if they might not agree with you. They will find it inspiring, and it may be a catalyst for your team to act for a cause they’re passionate about, too.

Also, people like to know that a leader has a point of view and will take a stand. Being with a flip-flopper is unsettling. Working under someone with conviction can give a sense of security and clarity.

Talk with your team.

Collectively, your team may be passionate about a cause and want to act. Brainstorm ways your organization can help whether it be writing letters, donating money, or volunteering. Then formulate a plan and get moving.

The shared experience may even strengthen the bond of your team.

Use your clout.

With your organization’s approval, extend your leadership role into the community. Use your notoriety and speak at community organizations, schools, and institutions to bring attention to important issues.

Join forces.

Dave Matthews, Justin Timberlake, Pharrell, and Ariana Grande joined together to host a Concert for Charlottesville following the deadly white supremacist riot in the Virginia town last August.

You can do something similar–get together with other business leaders to amplify your impact, Which lends itself to more hands, heads, and hearts–and more attention to what’s important to you.

Get involved with other events.

You don’t need to create your own event–other groups are already acting and would welcome your support. So, get involved and tell your team what you’re doing. They may want to tag along, too.

Some national groups like the ACLUAnti-defamation LeagueHuman Rights Watch, and Greenpeace, may have chapters in your area. You can find a list here.

And to support your efforts in making a difference, you can find your local representatives here.

Instead of feeling dismayed and hopeless, take action and stand up – peacefully and compassionately – for what you believe in. If we all do that a little more lately, we’ll help create a better world for all of us.

A version of this post was first published on Inc.
Image: iqoncept / 123RF Stock Photo

Three Ways Women Unintentionally Exclude Men

The other day I was in a meeting with a group of sales people. The conversation was energetic and lively with lots of great ideas bouncing around. I was watching this exchange and noticed something. Out of nearly a dozen people, there were only two men. And those men weren’t speaking much. Why? Because men and women communicate very differently.

The women in the room were having an open dialogue and effective interaction but their style unintentionally left the men out, causing them to shut down. Most likely, these women—and most others in the workplace—–aren’t aware that their natural tendencies can affect the feelings and participation of men. But being cognizant of these behaviors can help you be more inclusive.

Here are three ways women unintentionally exclude men in the workplace:

  1. Our communication patterns. Women are considered very collaborative so we tend to finish each other’s sentences and add onto each other’s points. We use a lot of filler words, words that are rooted in emotion such as “I feel,” or cheerlead, “Absolutely, great point!” Research has shown that we want to create a good environment, a sense of community and maintain positive relationships with the people in the room. Men, on the other hand, are more pragmatic and direct in their communication-style. It’s not that they don’t want a good atmosphere, but it isn’t quite as necessary. Women should consider giving more space and time for men to contribute to a conversation. We should aim to streamline our messages by dialing back the emotion or relationship-focused words. We don’t need to eradicate our style of communication but be aware and scale it back so everyone feels comfortable to participate.
  2. Competing with each other. Women want harmony—until competition enters the picture and then that harmony can break down in a bad way. While competition for men is viewed as natural and positive; for women, it’s widely seen as a negative force that can wreak havoc on the work environment. In my gender cooperation training, men have told me that they feel very uncomfortable when there’s competition between two women. For men, they can compete with a colleague, compartmentalize, and head out for a beer. For women, it’s a different story. Competition often erodes the effectiveness of the team and can even brew a toxic environment. If you see that competition is having a negative impact on the team, try to quickly resolve any conflict and move on. This way it won’t confuse men—and women—on the team and everyone can get back to working towards the same goal.
  3. Big thinking. When most women wake up in the morning, they’re thinking about the entire day ahead of them—all the way to bedtime. Men, on the other hand, often think about just the first twenty minutes. Does this ring true for you and your partner? Research backs it up. Mark Gungor has found that men and women’s brains work differently. His research has shown that women’s brains are more connected so when we’re thinking, more areas of the brain are involved. When we are considering a project at work, we think about its impact on all the stakeholders involved including ourselves and our professional and personal lives. Men, on the other hand, think linearly. Only one area of the brain is involved during thinking. (It’s important to note that a Stanford University study contradicts these findings and asserts that socialization is responsible for brain signaling). We can’t retrain our brains, but women can aim to be more present in the moment. We can try to shrink our decision-making process so that it does not encompass a multitude of aspects and angles—overwhelming both ourselves and our male colleagues. If we want to show the bigger picture to them, we should do so in a way that’s explicit—linearizing our multi-thinking process.

Women don’t need to entirely change who they are and how they do things in the workplace, but being more self-aware of how our behavior may impact the feelings and participation of our male counterparts and adapting our styles when appropriate, will help our working relationships.

In case you missed it, check out my LinkedIn article on ways men may behave sexist and how to avoid it.

Image Credit: Fotolia iofoto

The Intercultural Communication Challenges of Skype Meetings

The Intercultural Communication Challenges of Skype Meetings

My intercultural business clients often enlist my aid to help them improve their Skype meetings. They count on me to provide them with a unique perspective on intercultural communication and want to hear my views about why it is so difficult and dissatisfying for them. From my perspective, the difficulty and dissatisfaction of using Skype to conduct meetings in an intercultural context is not due to the most obvious reasons.

We all know there are technical issues. Depending on the speed of the connections, coupled with the video and audio capabilities of the webcams and microphones, the display and the audio can cut in and out, and can be difficult to hear or visualize. There can be maddening lags, freezes, crashes and any number of unexpected glitches, all of which play havoc with even the most carefully organized meetings. These are not a big issue when using Skype for conversations within our private lives. But even when things go perfectly on the technical side of things within a business context, there are issues that need to be addressed for ensuring successful intercultural meetings.

For example, every language has a tempo. By that I mean, how quickly people speak, how long a time they leave between one sentence and the next, and how long they wait before responding to someone else’s words, varies. In the French language there is typically a slight overlap at the end of a spoken sentence; the next speaker begins before the other has finished. In English, in North America at least, we pause slightly to signal that it’s the other person’s turn to speak. In the Japanese language there are substantially longer pauses between one speaker and another. Such subtle differences can be found in all languages.

This is what I call the tempo, or rhythm, of a language. When the French or Japanese speak English, they bring their rhythms with them. Anglophones who learn other languages maintain their native tempo, as well. I encounter this phenomenon every day with my intercultural clients, accustomed as I am to observing such things. So I can easily understand how these different rhythms cause problems during intercultural Skype meetings, because when there is even the smallest lag during such sessions, our rhythms get disrupted.

When you are speaking your native language, such things are easily overcome. However, when you’re speaking a foreign language, each time you face such a disruption you become distracted from what you were in the middle of saying or hearing. The larger the number of cultures participating in the Skype meeting, the more complicated it becomes. Why?

How Easily Can You Multitask in Your Mind?

What is rarely acknowledged is that when we are speaking our native languages, we are able to multitask in our minds. We listen easily, formulate what we are going to say next, think about what we’re going to have for lunch, generate opinions about the others around us, notice the air temperature in the room, and so on. So what’s another minor distraction like lag?

Simply this. When you are using a second language, it’s impossible to multitask in your mind to the same degree; you have to focus more on listening. So if you don’t hear part of a sentence, then understanding suffers. If you’re distracted by that lack of understanding, it’s then more difficult for you to formulate what you want to say next. And even if you are able to formulate what to say next, the rhythm you are used to is disrupted and you are unsure of when to add a comment or question.

Furthermore, even if you are able to make sense of the partial sentences you’re hearing, can formulate what to say next and jump in at just the right time, there’s the next trap waiting for you. This is the biggest stumbling block for many of my clients: you see yourself while speaking a foreign language. As one client candidly told me, “That is a sight I’d rather not see!”

It’s easier to convince yourself when speaking in person to others that your accent isn’t so bad and the way you form the unfamiliar sounds of a second language doesn’t look weird to your listeners. (Indeed, how many of you who speak a second language dislike leaving a phone message because you don’t want your voice to be recorded in English? I know I prefer not doing so in French.) When using Skype you have to watch yourself looking uncomfortable and unsure while trying to construct a coherent message in another language within a technically challenging context. Frankly, all of us have to have nerves of steel to get through it. As a result, many Skype meetings are conducted without any video. It’s common in such cases to use slow Internet connection speeds as an excuse. But I wonder when I hear that whether it’s not more about a sense of self dignity that we are trying to defend.

Skype is not the villain here. Instead, it simply amplifies things that all of us working within intercultural situations in a language other than our native one face every day. This can result in some uncomfortable conversations but as I say to my clients, “Discomfort goes with the territory.” In turn, they tell me what a relief it is to discuss these issues of difficulty and discomfort so openly. They are rarely discussed at the office, where everyone simply pretends to be confident and comfortable during such meetings, with varying degrees of success.

When this fact of intercultural business communication is finally out in the open, the burden of pretending is lifted. Suddenly everyone can agree about just how awkward it is to function effectively in a foreign language when using Skype. That openness inspires people to be more patient and helpful, and less judgmental of one another. A shift in attitude, along with improved intercultural communication skills, not just an improvement in technology, is what it’s going to take to meet the unprecedented challenges of communicating globally across cultures online.

This post first appeared on sherwoodfleming.com Sherwood Fleming is an intercultural communication seminar leader and author of Dance of Opinions.

Effective Global, Cross Cultural Meetings

Join us for #GlobalMindsetChat, Thurs 9am PT / 12pm ET / 18:00 CET

This week’s topic: Effective & Productive Global, Cross Cultural Meetings

by Evelyn Eury @SageStrategist

Pitfalls of Global, Cross Cultural Meetings

Global meeting planning across cultures has many of the same pitfalls as traditional meeting organizing but is complicated by the cultural nuances of different offices, local customs and professional yet, culturally biased viewpoints. The savvy cross cultural meeting planner understands the cultural challenges and plans for them accordingly. In an August 2011 Gigaom.com article, Gary Swart pinpoints the first problem of planning and urges global leadership to make good decisions based upon analysis. He introduces a truth most managers already know: “managers spend between 30 and 80 percent of their time in meetings and more than 50 percent of them consider many meetings to be a ‘waste of time.’” (Swartz, August 28 2011) He asserts that effective meetings are rendered possible when planners first ensure that the event is vital to hold, carefully create an itinerary to be followed and that outputs should be evaluated post-haste in order to rate successfulness.

Challenges of Cross Cultural Virtual Meetings

Remote international meetings across cultures require all of these considerations but also necessitate cutting edge technology that allows real-time communication, the sharing of documents and data virtually, and ideally video to increase one’s ability to read other meeting participants non-verbal queues. Virtual meetings with international offices can also produce other hiccups: such as language barriers, divergence in availability due to working hours, varied holiday and leave schedules, and cultural nuance that impacts meeting participants level of comfort in speaking with other employees. New global, virtual meeting research shows that the number one barrier to global meetings across cultures are time-zones. Next comes lack of consistent moderation and cultural misunderstanding due to the inability of reading non-verbal cues.  In this case, meeting dates and time must be carefully selected in order to increase attendance, allow for translators where necessary and leadership must be aware of cultural variance in order to make all parties relaxed in communication style.

Questions for #GlobalMindsetChat, Thursday 9am PT / 12pm ET

Q1.  Should companies rely on internal translators to aid in meeting discussions? #GlobalMindsetChat

Q2.  Do you think it is more effective to work with a third party Translation Services vendor?  Any recommendations? #GlobalMindsetChat

Q3.  Do you think leadership should devise international office Holiday Schedules based solely on cultural sensitivity or also consider business needs? #GlobalMindsetChat

Q4. How does your company deal with time zone differences when scheduling meetings? #GlobalMindsetChat

Q5.  How important is cultural nuance when communicating remotely? Is it more or less important than true face-to-face meetings? #GlobalMindsetChat

Q6. If you fail to have cultural experts on staff that can speak to local sensitivities, how would you obtain intelligence to deal with this challenge? #GlobalMindsetChat

What is #GlobalMindsetChat?

Recent studies show that Global Mindset is the key competence leaders urgently look to develop in their workforce today.

Every week, Melissa Lamson hosts the varied and unique #GlobalMindsetChat on Twitter. The only one of its kind, #GlobalMindsetChat provides pertinent information on cross cultural, intercultural, and diversity topics that impact global business and the economy today.

How to join a twitterchat: www.Forbes.com