Before I get stuck into this one, I want to say that this is a topic on which we very much practise as we preach but I’ve heard a lot of people saying recently that this model doesn’t work! Remote teams come in various shapes and sizes, with different goals and tasks to complete. They all, however, share two essential elements:
- two or more people collaborate to achieve a common aim.
- at least one member of the team works in a different location or at a different time.
Because of these two distinguishing traits, remote teams interact and coordinate in part using electronic media. It is critical to understand that virtual teams and remote teams are not the same. Virtual teams have team members who report into different line managers but are perhaps working on a project together so are a virtual team for this temporary purpose. Team members might be part of several virtual teams at any point in time.
Challenges faced by remote teams
Those who have worked in a remote team before may not be surprised that maintaining effectiveness and team cohesion can be more challenging than in-person teams. But not all remote teams have the same difficulties and the greater the degree of separation (in terms of both working hours and physical distance), the more focus might be needed on the team’s ways of working.
Methods to boost effectiveness in remote teams
There are simple methods to improve remote teams immediately, and then changes that need to be implemented over time. These are the short-term solutions:
- Encourage the use of video calls rather than just audio to build on connection and communication but be mindful that video is not always possible due to external factors such as children in the background or poor internet connection.
- Remote teams need a common working timeframe, with some overlap of working hours. The less time team members spend working simultaneously, the more difficult it is to have meetings so asynchronous methods such as sending each other video messages or watching recordings of meetings will be helpful to overcome time zone challenges etc. It’s important to note that good flexible working practices mean some people might be adopting non-standard hours. The synchronisation of remote teams will need to take this into account.
- When team members are far away from each other, it’s more challenging for them to understand each other’s contexts and how these affect their work. Managers and HR practitioners should ensure that teams proactively share information about the operational contexts, cultural differences, policies, and actions specific to each member’s location.
Building team cohesion and trust
Building trust and cohesiveness within a group are two criteria essential to its success. When team members like working together, understand each other’s ways of working and care about one another, a sense of social togetherness develops. Social cohesiveness is one of the most crucial requirements for a team to be successful.
It’s important to invest in team building, and where possible remote teams should meet each other face-to-face, even if this is only once a year. Where meeting in isn’t possible, you can still invest time and effort in activities such as sharing expectations from the team, getting to know each other, and anticipating how to handle conflict. Scheduling these calls regularly has positive effects on both social cohesion and trust.
Sometimes, when teams are working in different time zones where they can’t have a live conversation, it can be easier for misunderstandings to happen around communication if it’s harder to feel the tone of voice or intentions behind something. A way to overcome this is to get the team to agree on how they’ll communicate and discuss any potential misunderstandings before they turn into conflict and impact relationships.
A willingness to listen and participate in conversations is essential for effective communication within teams and across organisations.
Managers should hold regular debriefing sessions with their teams. The focus of the debriefing sessions should be on learning and improvement, rather than evaluation or judgement. In such a setting, the team should also share feedback with each other to discover lessons learned. A developmental focus not only yields more honest and accurate feedback but also enhances experiential learning.
Leading and listening
Finally, remote teams must learn how to work together effectively and coordinate their plans. There needs to be a clear definition of all the roles in the team and agreement on how often, how quickly and how transparently the team communicates. The role of a remote leader is important as they will need to put real focus on their own communication with the team so humility is important when considering team leaders, and try to match their leadership style to the challenge faced by the remote team.
The leader must have not only excellent listening skills, but also the ability to interpret what isn’t being said as this can be vital to uncovering potential issues in a virtual team.
If you’re keen to boost the effectiveness of your remote teams, get in touch so we can help.