How can we decrease distance? Now we have introduced Distance Mapping in my last blog Remote Teams (Part 2): How Distance Mapping can help you and identified the relationships which need the most attention, let us have a look at possible solutions. The following strategies will help you by providing an initial basis for distributed teams:
Lojeski and Reilly (Uniting the Virtual Workforce: Transforming Leadership and Innovation in the Globally Integrated Enterprise) discovered that distance has a tremendous effect on vision clarity. A vision always has to be communicated and periodically checked in the context of daily business. Physical distance provides a challenge for communicating a clear defined vision. I am convinced that the greater the distance, the lower communication becomes. This close conversation is particularly necessary at the beginning of a project: Everyone needs a common understanding of what the goals are and what is to be developed.
Therefore, at the beginning of a project it is recommended that everyone come together with a first face-to-face meeting. Getting people together creates excitement and enthusiasm and helps them to understand and to internalize the vision.
How do I start to build trust? I need to listen to my colleagues and communicate openly with them. In the very first few seconds I get familiar with their body language. Simple gestures like nodding, smiling or eye contact let me know that my counterpart is engaged with me and means well. Of course, this happens unconsciously in my brain. In time I get to know my team mates a bit better and understand more about their characters, preferences and values. Thanks to personal contacts I start to trust them: This happens through personal interactions like a joint lunch, laughing over a funny joke or incident, or just simply by enjoying the person’s company.
I am convinced that it is more difficult for people in distant remote locations to build up such relationships based on trust. However, I have come to realize that it is not impossible. Whenever possible and reasonable I use face-to-face meetings for example via a video conference. Often, the reason was not the meeting itself but the ability to connect visually to each other. Start off with some “small talk” by asking how each other are doing and showing interest in what is going on outside of the workplace before getting into the meeting stuff. It sounds so trivial but this type of conversation simply helps people to open up and start to talk. I always do this upfront when having a virtual conversation.
I also found out that some warm-up activity at the beginning of a meeting can help to encourage people to talk. Sometimes I facilitate some short games to give my team the chance to get to know each other a bit closer. It is also an important energizer, to help them to get focussed. They appreciate these games.
In my second week in a distributed team, I realized that some of the team members felt disadvantaged having meetings during their local lunch time. Try to consider such cultural differences and instill a sense of fairness by optimizing schedule. Also rotate travelling if possible. This means that people should share the additional requirement that comes of travelling.
Another thing I learnt working in a distributed team: Do not take things just for granted. In a co-located workplace a lot of things happen almost naturally. For example, if you have to speak to your colleagues then you can usually meet them without any effort. Even if the person is sitting behind you there is no barrier inhibiting you talking to each other. In my first week in my remote team I found myself kind of struggling. I lost my common intuition to make conversation. I was not sure which communication channel I had to use for this request or for that question.
After a while I learnt my team’s communication guideline. However, to save time: I recommend you to clearly get a team commitment on when to use face-to-face meetings, phone, chat or e-mail. Also an agreement about how to use different tools can be helpful. For example, you define the simple rule to chat privately with someone whenever possible, instead of spamming the team’s chat room.
Having an online meeting means you need to attract someone’s attention. It is out of your control what people do during such meetings. In fact, in a real-time meeting people can also mentally drift away. However, participating in an online meeting people are even more enticed to checking and replying to e-mails or doing some other stuff. This often happens without any conscious or bad intention.
It can be helpful asking the participants after the meeting how often they had been distracted by other stuff. This may encourage them to become more aware of their own behavior. To let them participate more actively is another option. As facilitator it is up to you to encourage someone directly to participate and provide input. I also made some good experience asking the person after the meeting why he or she checked out of the conversation and what could be changed to avoid this the next time. It can also happen that issues come up which are not relevant for the whole group, or you just think you are wasting your time. Feel free to speak openly about this when it happens. Only by addressing this directly will you achieve the most effective conversations.
So what’s next?
I don’t think any of these solutions will be completely new to you. There are also certainly more ways to decrease distance. By reviewing this subject I realized something essential. Working in a distributed team means one thing in particular: Observe your environment mindfully. First, you have to understand the different distance types: Remote Teams (Part 1): Distance is the new workplace challenge. Try then to understand your network: Remote Teams (Part 2): How Distance Mapping can help you. Finally provide your team with a good basis to work in a co-located by applying the solutions mentioned in this third and final blog article.
Here’s to killing distance, and making my dream come true!