5 strategies to help distributed teams work better together

Michael Venn

Founder

Remote working is on the rise. Some 43 percent of employees in the US now work remotely at least some of the time, while 37 percent say that they would change jobs to be able to. Buffer is a well-known example, with 75 staff, 4.5 million customers – and no office.

Working remotely certainly comes with plenty of benefits for the employee – you can stay in the comfort of your own home, skip the commute and work around your other commitments. It also comes with positives for the business, boosting morale, saving the need for expensive office space and allowing the company to call on the skills of individuals around the world.

Since founding Crugo, I’ve managed a number of remote workers, including both freelancers and members of the permanent team. Working together physically has its advantages – being in the same space makes it far easier to communicate, whether you’re in a meeting or are working together on a project. People have conversations in person, whether relating to work or not, that they would never have if they weren’t face to face – and this can make a crucial difference in driving innovation and building team spirit.

Even though we prefer having everyone in one office space when possible, we still have remote workers within our current team, and we work with temporary freelancers on occasion. After all, freelance platforms make it fast, simple and affordable to hire highly motivated and highly skilled individuals from almost anywhere.

At the end of the day, there are plenty of potential negative factors to remote working that managers are quite rightly afraid of – with the potential for employees to become disconnected and unproductive in an organisational structure with limited accountability.

However, by ensuring that the distributed team remains connected and engaged, businesses can realise the benefits of remote working with few of the drawbacks. Here are five strategies to ensure that’s the case.


Stay aligned

The first and most important step to connecting your distributed team is to ensure that they really are a team. Does everyone understand their role and responsibilities? Does everyone understand what is expected of them? And do they understand the bigger picture and how their roles fit into the success of the company? You might assume that workers in an office will organically absorb this information, but with more limited communication channels with a distributed team it’s important to be explicit.

Thorough documentation might sometimes seem excessive, but when working with a remote team it’s hugely valuable.

Furthermore, from a managerial perspective, it’s also worth considering how staff output and productivity is measured. This isn’t about micromanaging, or just ticking boxes, but is about making sure that staff have productive, engaging work to be doing.

remote workingConference call
A key part of keeping the team aligned is to have regular meetings and to keep the conversation going in the meantime with chat threads. Communicating solely through emails and text messaging can be effective but it can ultimately feel isolating, lacking the human element of verbal communication.

Scheduling regular video and audio calls between colleagues and between line managers and reports ensures that staff stay on the same page and that they feel included. If workers are split between remote staff and an office team, this is particularly important in ensuring that employees feel plugged in together as a single entity.

Ensure you have always-available communication channels – and that you use them.

remote workingMake time
Processes carried out remotely can often be notably more time consuming – however, the overall efficiencies gained by distributed working often outweigh the costs. Meetings can take time, for example, but it’s important to make the investment, and to ensure that everyone checks in at regular intervals.

Furthermore, if you’re working with international staff then time zones need to be considered. A UK company with Australian employees, 11 hours ahead, for example, will find it difficult to stay in contact. That will mean some mean some awkward meeting scheduling (ie 8am here and 7pm there) or staggered hours to accommodate the time difference. If these factors aren’t taken into consideration then staff are likely to feel fundamentally disconnected from the team.

remote working
Use the right tools

Of course, staying connected relies on having the right tools. Remote working is a modern phenomenon – and would have been simply impossible in previous decades. Nowadays, free video calling and collaborative editing in the cloud via internet browser makes it easy to work almost anywhere (think the coffee shop – or the beach). Of courses, it’s important to have the right tools for what you want to do, and to ensure that constant communication is both easy and frictionless.

Instant messaging, voice notes, audio calls, screensharing and multi-way video conferencing are all powerful channels, providing more fluid communication than can be achieved by email. Beyond this, collaborative editing, file sharing and online tools and platforms can all provide highly effective channels for distributed teams. These tools can, of course, be extremely useful for teams in a single location as well – making workflows far more fluid and secure. Having the tools to connect, and to document and archive communications, is extremely useful whether you’re working with someone in a foreign country, someone who’s 50 metres away or someone who’s on the next desk over. And for a team that is part-time remote (think work-from-home Fridays), the same tools can be used throughout.
Having one platform where you can communicate, plan projects and share files, all in one place, rather than needing to use a handful of tools or applications is invaluable. Typically platforms focus on a single function, such as file sharing (like Dropbox), meaning that other channels then have to be used for communication or other functions. Using an array of tools naturally makes team workflows quite disjointed (are the files in Google Drive, Dropbox or email?) – so if you can find a unified solution it comes with significant benefits.

remote workingMeet in person when you can
When possible, it’s also great to bring the remote team together in person. That can mean for department or company-wide meetings or simply for social purposes (like bowling and drinks). This gives the team the opportunity to relate to one another on a personal level that might be otherwise absent and to air topics that have previously remained unsaid. Whatever the case, having the opportunity to occasionally connect in person can have a huge impact, whether that is applied to key decision making or simply to team bonding.

Conclusion: engage, communicate and energise
In a worst case scenario, distributed teams can feel divided, disconnected from the core team and poorly resourced. To effectively combat this, it’s important to ensure that every member of the team is engaged; that you have clear and open channels of communication; and that you have the time and tools to connect. If it’s done right, remote working has the potential to energise and significantly expand the scope of your operations – for example, giving staff the perk of working from home one day a week, at one extreme, or taking on freelancers from around the world, at the other.

Remote working isn’t something that’s going away anytime soon – and with the potential of collaborating across mixed-reality work spaces, it’s something that’s only going to become more immersive.

5 strategies to help distributed teams work better together from Michael Venn

 

 

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