August 2016: Making the remote team work

The notion of remote team-working is simple enough: use technology to bridge the gaps in geography and save yourself lots of time and the company lots of cash.

Working with colleagues across time zones, differing cultural norms, linguistic barriers and geographical boundaries in theory is fine, after all, we are all supposed to be citizens within this glorious single, global economy. Unfortunately, we seem to be doing this global thing as if we were all sitting together in the same building. Talking about having a global team is one thing. Running one is quite another. Organisation charts that show solid lines between people indifferent countries give no suggestion of the practical steps that we are going to have take to make remote team-working, work.

Lost in translation

When working remotely things go awry instantly and completely for, apparently minor reasons. A repeatedly dropped connection might simply cause frustration and delay but poor sound quality can easily cause mystification (did she say sound or send?), a strong regional accent or the unconscious use of idiom can completely alter the emphasis and even meaning of a message – for example not everyone who’s grownup corporately outside Europe and the US will understand that could you take a look at… is not a suggestion but an instruction.

Do you know what time it is?

I’m in London and you’re in Rio – lucky you. Well, until I ask you to join a call at a time that works well for our colleagues in Berlin and Kampala but which means that you have to be out of bed and crossing a less-than-safe part of town a 4 o’clock in the morning. How do you go about getting me to appreciate that you are a team player but that Rio is not Reading and there are some risks that no team or leader should ask you to take for them.

We’ve never met, but…

Things go wrong, people make mistakes. It's sometimes awkward to give feedback on what has gone wrong be it because we don't want to offend or because we fear the ensuing awkwardness or even a counter criticism. But giving negative feedback to someone who we barely know, down the phone, is even worse. How dare I presume that it's OK to criticise someone who I barely know… And what if it was me who was not being clear or helpful? Maybe I should wait until we see each other next year – it’s only a few months away…

There are books about this, you know…

You will find lots and lots of books, at your holiday airport, on the topic of running remote teams successfully. But to save you the effort of wading through cold treacle on the first day of your richly deserved summer break, here's my quick-read take.

                                                        OFTEN. SIMPLE. OPEN.

Often

Distance bends time. When we don't have the opportunity to glance people in the corridor or across the car park we feel further removed from them and therefore detached. We don't have the opportunity to see their daily demeanour and to pick up on the bits and pieces of corridor chat that keeps us in the know about them. And when we don't know, we guess. When we guess, most of us guess negative and wrong. We fill in gaps in knowledge with plausible fiction picked up by reading between the lines in emails and texts. Disaster!

Speaking frequently, even for a quick, inconsequential chat, cuts down on the guesswork and assumptions that we indulge in by allowing us to pick up on all the real data that keeps the picture clear.

Simple

Until wi-fi always works, satellite signals never falter and video conferencing is ‘just like being there’, we will need to keep communication simple so that there is less to go wrong. What does this mean in practice?

·       Send complex information in an email ahead of time and talk through it live 

·       Keep call/VC agendas short and really conservative in scope

Open (and attentive)

When we are face-to-face with conversational partners much is picked up subliminally. Lots is left unsaid and yet is understood. When that level of proximity, and therefore richness of communicated detail is missing, we must replace it with voluntary disclosure so that we avoid the other person having to fill in the gaps with their own version of events – which will often be more negative than the version that happened in the respective rooms. So…

·       Explain everything… Silences, reactions, feelings so that the other person doesn't have to guess

·       Don't guess – ask. Or better still...

·       Empathise (you sound doubtful/you seem hesitant/you’ve gone quiet... perhaps because…)

We could say that building relationships remotely tests our mettle with regard to being more honest and more explicit than we would choose to be face-to-face. We could say that it's about taking ambiguity out of an imperfect situation by spelling things out that normally don't even need to be named.

The enemy of trust is doubt, not disagreement. Be prepared to disagree through being too open rather than leave people to doubt because you are being too closed.

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