Remote teams are the future of work. The Global Mobile Workforce Forecast Update estimates that 1.87 billion employees -- over 40% of the world’s working population -- will be mobile by 2022. In highly developed countries like the US, the figures could soon reach 75% (International Data Council (IDC)).
This means a new kind of leadership and management approach is required. Remote teams face unique communication challenges, such as coordinating across time zones and overcoming language and cultural barriers. The distance also makes it harder for team members to feel like a team. In the worst-case scenario, they’re just strangers who happen to be working on the same project -- exchanging messages, but missing out on the collaboration and creative synergy that can make work exceptional and emotionally fulfilling.
Here are some ways real companies have bridged the virtual gap between remote employees so they can work well (and work closely!) even if they’re apart.
1. Have regular live meetings
“Trust is huge on a virtual team. If you’re interacting by phone, you can’t see their faces or read their body language,” says Allsteel’s National Architectural and Design Manager A.J. Paron-Wildes, whose designers are spread out across North America.
That’s why she makes it a point to complement traditional emails and messaging apps with regular video conferences so team members can see each other. “Virtual teams will fail to be effective if they don’t meet live at the start. Live meetings help relationships start well, and nurture and grow them over time.”
2. Create opportunities for people to connect as people
Since remote teams don’t have natural opportunities to bond over lunch or after work, team leaders have to actively create ways for members to inspire, connect and motivate each other. “Our secret ingredient to building a killer remote team is a disruptive kindness,” says Rachel Valdez, Head of Global Talent Management at PowertoFly.” They have TGIIF meetings (Thank God It’s Inspiration Friday) where they share stories of what inspired them that week, as well as what they’re looking forward to doing that weekend. “Since we are a remote team, these connection points make all the difference and we actually see an increase in productivity and general well-being on the team.”
3. Invest in messaging technologies that drive collaboration
A study by Zogby Analytics found that 41% of remote teams are still left to coordinate via text, Skype and Facebook messenger, instead of being given mobile platforms that are specifically designed for remote project management and communication.
"The result is that information gets lost when individuals, teams and management use different ways to communicate, and the enterprise is at risk because communication and collaboration are happening on platforms that are not secure or trusted," said Stacey Epstein, CEO of Zinc. “While 71% of managers feel up to date on work news, only 40% of staff feel the same”.
4. Set up communication guidelines
Evernote General Manager Beat Buhlman says it’s important to set rules of how and when to use communication tools. When do we use chats? Why do we write emails? At what point do we pick up the phone? ” says Beat Buhlmann, Evernote’s General Manager. For example, it’s counterproductive to send project notifications on chat: team members get distracted by constant notifications, and they’re more likely to lose important information in a long thread. Emails are good for sending information, but not for collaboration -- if the topic requires clarity and sensitivity, or benefits from an energetic exchange of ideas, then schedule a call.
5. Emphasize the purpose… then emphasize it again
“To help your team combat us-vs.-them thinking, reinforce what is shared: the team’s purpose,” says Mark Mortensen, associate professor and chair of Organizational Behaviour Area at INSEAD. “Ensuring that the team’s goal is clear, challenging, consequential, and commonly-held yields the biggest benefit. This holds true whether your subordinates are down the hall or around the globe.”
The next step is to make it clear how the individual’s purpose fits into that bigger picture. Mobile workers are often only briefed on their particular tasks, and given information on a need-to-know basis. And since members work in silos, they don’t see how their work affects everyone down the chain. Interdepartmental meetings -- say, where the programmers get UX feedback from marketing and customer service, or the sales team tells social media what they want to promote -- can help them feel like they’re contributing to something bigger than today’s deadline.
6. Manage by objective
“Manage by objectives. Give people goals to hit and then let them go to figure out the smaller stuff on their own. Micromanaging is a waste of time as it is, but it’s even worse in remote teams where you can’t see the team and where communication is inherently slower,” says Mark Viktus, Marketing Team Lead at Toggl.
The problem of many remote teams is that objectives are unclear. “On-Boarding is often overlooked. Create processes that make this as comprehensible as possible. There should never be a new hire, working remotely by themselves, and wondering how to do their job,” Eryn Peters, Head of Community at Toptal.
7. Teach people to contextualize communication
“When you’re communicating digitally, you never quite know what the other person is doing at that moment. A person may only be responding “Yes” to your question and not elaborating because they don’t have time. Without understanding the other person’s context, you might think that person doesn’t care about the issue you brought up, when they’re really just running to catch a cab in San Francisco,” says the Trello Guide to Remote Work.
That’s why remote teams need to overcommunicate and avoid making assumptions. Psychological safety is important: many people will say “Yes” out of habit, but it’s critical for them to say when they’re confused, distracted, or even offended. “Resentment builds over time due to underlying issues not being addressed. Digital communication gone rogue can breed misunderstandings and hurt feelings.”
Communication is difficult in a traditional workplace, but it is more difficult and more critical when employees work in different places and time zones. “On a virtual team, you can’t communicate nonverbally the way you can when you’re together with someone in person,” says Rudi Ramin, CEO of Grow. "But communication is at least as important on a virtual team as on any other. Grow can provide team members with the tools they need to enhance their communication and to adapt it to a virtual team setting.”
Grow is a digital platform that empowers teams and supports leadership development. Follow us on LinkedIn for updates and insights on teams, leadership and personal development.
You may also want to take the Grow Team Snapshot, a free online test that can give you more insights about how your team is performing.