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Editor's note: In part one of this three-part series on how to manage and optimize distributed teams, management expert Joseph Flahiff laid out eight tips for facilitating collaboration among on-site and remote teams. Here, he describes the problems associated with three of six types of remote teams and offers pointers on how to fix them.
Not all remote work is created equal. There is a spectrum of remote work. Some of it can be really good, some can really stink.
#1. Big team, one solo
This is the worst of all possible options for collaboration: A large group of people are collocated and able to collaborate face to face. Only one person is remote.
The good thing about this option is that with only one person remote, there won't be contention on the phone or video conference for speaking time.
However, the one person who is remote will always feel like an outsider. Collaborative teams work best when people feel safe socially and psychologically and that psychosocial safety net is difficult to achieve when only one person is remote. If you have ever been on the other side of the phone, you know what I am talking about. It is hard to understand what is happening in the room. People tend to talk over one another. Many of the nonverbal cues -- which can account for between 55% and 93% of communications -- are missed by the remote person. Video teleconferencing technology helps, but the solo person is always going to have a hard time jumping in and participating in the dynamics of the live conversation happening in the room.
- To make the most of this situation, have someone in the room be the phone person's "buddy." The job of the buddy is to ALWAYS be thinking about that person on the phone.
- Use multiple forms of communication. Have the remote person on text message or an instant message link. That way, if you have a technical problem setting up the call, you will have an alternative communication channel already connected. Messaging can also help the remote person break into conversations, because the on-site buddy can then advocate for him or her.
#2. One group and lots of solo
In this option, you have a small group of people who are collocated and the majority of people in individual remote sites. This option is a little better just by dint of the numbers -- the more remote people, the more influence they have in the group. If more than half your team comprises solo remote people, the local team is more likely to pay attention to them because they are the majority. Still it will be difficult to communicate, especially with lots of people on telecommunications devices. Live, in-person conversations are messier than you might think. Even when we try to be polite, we end up talking over each other and interrupting each other with nonverbal cues. Technology solutions today cannot simulate this perfectly. Although these tools are getting better every day, there is still a slight delay when switching from one speaker to another, even in full duplex systems.
- Set protocols for speaking in turn. Always ask if anyone has anything to add. Maybe speak in some predetermined order, alphabetical or by location.
- Voting protocols. Use collaboration tools or visual cues for voting. The key is to avoid the cognitive bias of anchoring. This is hard to do over a telecom connection.
- Pair remote people with other remote people, local people with local people. By pairing people with like communications limitations you will optimize their skills. If you pair remote workers with collocated workers, the collocated workers miss out on the benefits of their collocation.
#3. Large team and a small team
This combination is actually quite workable, with a few caveats. Ideally, each team can function as a fully autonomous unit. That is, if one team takes on a piece of work, it should have all the skills necessary to complete the work. It is NOT advisable to have one team be a test team and another be the creating team, because the handoffs will eat up a lot of time. Additionally, you may end up creating an "us and them" mentality. While separate but equally able teams sound good in theory, there is a risk of creating divergent, even adversarial, team cultures. Additionally, it is easy for each team to tell themselves stories about the other team. For example, "Oh, they are not as good as we are at x" or "That team thinks they are awesome, but they really aren't." Rumors live on lack of communication. The more your large and small teams communicate with each other, the less likely those rumors will fly.
- Leaders should visit whatever site they are not at as often as they can. Making this a regular, predictable schedule is also a good idea so that people grow to expect your presence on predictable days.
- The trick with this team is to break the work in such a way that there are limited interdependencies between the remote sites. By the very nature of being a team the work will be somewhat interdependent, but strive for as little as possible.
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.
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