How do you stay connected? Don’t you feel isolated? Don’t you worry that your team is not really working?
These are just some of the questions I have received while leading distributed or remote teams. The answers are simple: no, I don’t feel isolated; no, I don’t worry that my team is not working; and I stay more connected now than when we were all in the office together. So, how do I do it?
Well, first let’s talk about the difference between distributed and remote teams. Remote teams are those that do not have a physical space or office to go to. Distributed teams, on the other hand, do have a physical location where people can work if they are not working from home. I have led teams in both situations, and I have learned a lot about how to create high-performing teams virtually.
In a previous role, our team had a scheduled 15-minute virtual ‘stand-up’ call three times a week. It gave us an opportunity to connect briefly on progress, challenges and any urgent matters, which were then marked for a longer discussion with those involved. I had virtual one-to-ones with each member of my team weekly or bi-weekly, depending on the size of the team. This was my way of staying connected with my team members. We didn’t just talk about work; we discussed their goals and even their personal lives if they wanted – whatever was needed.
We used our messaging platform with defined communication ‘rules of engagement’: for example, anything intended for team view went in the team channel, and anything specifically for me went directly to me. For the wider organisation we instituted virtual, bi-weekly team ‘coffee breaks’ where anyone could drop in with their cup of coffee (or wine depending on the time of day) and talk about news and sports etc. My teams were connected because of the virtual experiences provided in between the occasions when we could meet in person.
A similar way of communicating worked for me with global clients. My clients spanned New Zealand, Canada, and the far reaches of the US. Travel was not always feasible due to schedule or costs, so we utilised whatever platform worked for both parties to hold video conferences. It was important to me that we used the cameras; for my clients to know that I meant what I was saying, I wanted them to see my face when I spoke to them, and I asked the same from them.
If you search online, you will find many articles on isolation at work. But it’s important to realise that isolation isn’t always the result of working remotely or in a distributed way. In fact, isolation can commonly be found in any office. Scheduled one-to-ones with my team members, as well as making full use of all of my communication modalities, enabled me to ensure that neither my team nor myself felt isolated. On the rare occasion that I did, I reached out or someone reached out to me. In addition, I participated in my own one-to-ones with my leader.
Isolation can also come in the form of a lack of psychological safety. One never knows what is going on with our teams personally. They might be worried about a spouse who has to travel or what they will do if their children’s school gets closed. Providing psychological safety and a space in which your team members can express their fears will help each person to feel less alone.
Getting work done
One of the key criteria for successful remote or distributed teams is autonomy but that does not come naturally for everyone. Letting team members know that you trust them to have the best interests of the client or the company at heart, or that they are key to empowering others to do their jobs and do them well is vital. While it may seem that working remotely or in a distributed team could cause a decrease in productivity, research shows that this is not the case.
What has been working for you in your organisation as you convert to remote working? Where are some of your challenges?
Heather Panitch is Client Services Consultant at Impact Americas.