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Remote and collocated teams: How to make them better

Joseph Flahiff pinpoints problems associated with two more types of remote teams and explains why collocated teams may not be all they're cracked up to be.

it teams, employees, remote workers, distributed teams, big team, one solo

Editor's note: In part two, of this three-part series, management expert Joseph Flahiff described the challenges...

associated with the three types of remote teams: a big team and one solo person; a small collocated team and lots of remote solo people; and two collocated teams, one large and one small. And he offered advice on how to optimize each working arrangement. Here, he does the same for three more team configurations: all-distributed teams, equivalent teams and collocated teams.

#4.  All-distributed teams

Think of this configuration as the great equalizer. If everyone is distributed then everyone has the same benefits and everyone has to deal with the same problems. One group isn't engaging in face-to-face conversations, while the others are struggling to break into the conversation, for example. I have actually seen teams in configurations 1 or 2 realize that this all-remote configuration is better and decide they can improve their situation by sending everyone in the central team back to their desks, effectively creating an all-distributed team.

You may think there is no drawback to collocated teams, and you would be wrong.

Optimizations

  1. The most important optimization here is a focus on communication and acknowledging that team members need to listen to each other as much as they talk.
  2. With remote teams, it is easy for people to start believing the stories they may be telling themselves about other remote people in the group. Don't let it happen. Imaginary conversations can breed contempt. The all-distributed team must communicate with each other, a lot.
  3. Finally, all-distributed teams rely upon collaboration tools. Be sure the group agrees on the tools they will use. Having multiple Instant Messaging tools for example, can cause confusion. It is hard to remember that Bill only uses Slack and Jan only uses Jabber. What if they need to talk with each other?

#5.  Equivalent teams

This is a variation on the #3 "big team, little team" configuration. In this case, the teams are of equal or near-equal size. As in #3, the teams should be fully autonomous. What you really have here is two separate teams or sub-teams. They may be working on tightly related work, so they need to communicate a lot, but they function as separate teams as well. 

The drawback here is simply that the two teams can't meet face-to-face. But video teleconferencing (VTC) helps. If you have two medium-sized groups on either end of a VTC, however, it can be easy to get a very confusing conversation going. This often slips into two conversations happening at once rather than one team meeting.

Optimizations

  1. Use speaking protocols. Trade off on who is leading the meetings.
  2. Sometimes it makes sense to have two conversations and then share. Mute the mic when having the separate conversations. Use a visual cue such as a raised hand or holding up a green card to signal that your team is ready to unmute.

#6. Collocated teams

You may think there is no drawback to collocated teams, and you would be wrong. There are actually a lot of drawbacks to workplace togetherness. The biggest drawback is distraction. When you are in the office it is not unusual for someone to drop by your desk. To the person dropping by, it is just a quick five or ten-minute conversation, but to the person being interrupted it can be the loss of half an hour or more due to context switching.

Studies have shown that remote workers are more productive and happier than those required to be in an office. By the same token, these people are less connected to and collaborative with their remote team co-workers. This being true, the single most important reason to have people in an office is to foster collaboration. If people are not collaborating, they should be remote.  

Optimizations

  1. Collocated teams need to create a culture of not interrupting. One client used red, yellow and green cups on their cube walls. A red cup meant "Don't interrupt me unless there is a fire." Yellow meant "You can interrupt me, but it better be good." Green was the signal to drop by and chat. This simple system for collocated teams can do away with a lot of disruption and distraction in the office.
  2. Spend as much time as possible together working together, in other words, collaborating. If possible, schedule times for being in the office to collaborate and other times for being remote to focus. 
it teams, employees, remote workers, distributed teams, collocation, equivalent teams

'Thoughtful, committed people'

These are the six primary models of distributed teams and some good optimizations you can try for each. I am sure you have experience with some of these and have other optimizations; please share them in the Comments section below. Your experience may save someone a lot of hassle.

Of course, there are other combinations of these team configurations -- you can have two co-located teams and a bunch of solo workers -- but these are combinations of the six models I have outlined in this series.

Eight optimizations for your remote and collocated teams

Remote team members are the rule rather than the exception these days. Check out part one of Flahiff's three-part series, Eight best practices for optimizing a distributed team, for a handy list of tips on how to improve the lives of your on-site and remote workers.

Don't believe the lies that there is one right and best and holy team configuration that will solve all your problems and spin straw into gold. You need to optimize whatever configuration of remote or collocated teams you have. The truth is your team's commitment to working together, passion for the mission of the organization and support of one another will make more of a difference than your remote work configuration. Remember the observation by Margaret Mead that I cited at the start of this series. Thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. People who are passionate about working for the mission of an organization will make a way to work together. They will overcome any issues you can throw at them, even the many variations on distributed teams.

About the author:
Joseph Flahiff is an internationally recognized leadership and organizational agility expert at 
Whitewater Projects Inc. He has worked with Fortune 50 and Fortune 500 companies, government agencies, startups and publicly traded firms, where he has been recognized as an experienced, pragmatic and innovative adviser. He is the author of Being Agile in a Waterfall World: A practical guide for complex organizations. Learn more at www.whitewaterprojects.com.

Next Steps

Previous management tips from Joseph Flahiff:

Three attributes of a successful business reorganization

Destroy your way to organizational agility

Fire your managers: Practice supportive leadership

 

This was last published in May 2016

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Have you worked in one of the six types of teams I've described? Tell me your tips for optimizing distributed teams.
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I am working in an equally distributed team right now. We have adopted a lot of strategies from Scrum, including daily stand-ups, to improve communication.
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Good tips. I agree, distractions are an enormous issue with a collocated team - and it's a hundred times worse when the team is in an open work space. 
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