Picture this. You’re a client-servicing person working out of the head office in Mumbai. You just got a client brief “on priority” for a campaign that needs to be actioned and delivered by tomorrow. The design team you’re coordinating with works out of Melbourne. The team that is working on the idea and content strategy for the campaign works out of Bengaluru and the vendor handling the offline aspects like merchandise, posters and other related paraphernalia is based in Hyderabad.
With the various teams working on the same project on such a tight deadline, it does not take long to realise that there could be countless barriers to communication; miscommunication and misunderstandings could abound; team dynamics could go for a toss; and every tiny detail has the potential to push you and others on the team to a point where you want to pull your (or their!) hair out. Yes, working with remote teams is difficult – but it’s far from impossible.
Whether you’re a startup with a very distributed workforce, a multi-national organisation with global teams working together or an agency that has only freelancers onboard, virtual teams are your reality. It’s not uncommon today to work on the same project with team members who are geographically not in the same workplace, living in different time-zones and still delivering on the same timelines. It’s also not uncommon to hear about the many problems that arise out of working apart. But are there any really tried-and-tested ways to ensure that distance doesn’t become a barrier? Yes, there are!
The communication conundrum When it comes to the functioning of any team, working remotely or in close quarters, communication is an everyday requisite. It is what ensures that the team has coherence, is motivated and works to achieve optimum productivity while being happy.
But then there is such a thing as over-communication but it might be a safer bet when it comes to working across distance and time zones.
Let’s ‘face’ it
Face-to-face communication comes with lot of benefits as it allows us to study and take cues from overt behaviour other than what is being said. With tools that allow decent scope for direct interaction, communication over distances has truly evolved.
Turns out that working in a team actually present with you, not only aids communication with regard to work but also makes you more socially involved and thus makes worklife at office, more interesting. Who would have thought water-cooler conversations had such profound benefits! When working with remote teams, this absence thus has to be compensated for. Whether you invest in online chat rooms, project management tools or video conferencing, make sure to keep the conversation (both work-related and otherwise) flowing!
Yes, there will be those who would prefer slipping into silos especially since they are all not present at the same location. This takes place even more so when people get tired of being pinged constantly and getting distracted. What then? Change the form of communication. Let employees decide when they want to be active over online connections but at the same time ensure that they realise the value of it.
You could even run a campaign explaining the tools being offered to enable simpler, easier communication. If you think that your staff will be over-burdened with e-mails on account of working remotely you could even try something as drastic as replacing most email communication with a project management system. We live in a world where screen-sharing is not science fiction anymore so why not make life simpler, eh?
The art of remote control
It’s one thing if you have been working remotely with certain team members since the beginning. It’s a totally different ballgame when you’ve had team members working with you and then shift to work from home situations. After the initial separation anxiety dies out, you are often filled with a performance driven anxiety that can often make even the most insecure, doubting partners look better! It’s not unnatural to feel this loss of control – like a sudden severance of the umbilical cord that allowed you to keep a check at all times.
Word of advice – don’t make your insecurities as a leader too apparent. Not only does that make remote team members feel that you don’t trust them but also makes them question their own abilities and position at work. Instead, try to treat remote team members just like other employees present with you while simply making sure that you communicate more often and in greater detail. This will enable them to experience the same work culture as your other employees.
Performance management often poses a difficulty but your best step forward would be to document and standardize performance metrics that you can keep altering and refining over time. Having these systems in place also helps you map growth, performance and plan rewards and recognition initiatives better. Employees should not be deprived of any benefit simply because they work from home. Instead, build systems of accountability and standards of communication that can surpass the bounds of distance, time-zones or a sense of separation.
A culture of remote connectivity
The organizational culture you perpetuate has a direct bearing on your employees think, feel and function in the organisation. A work culture that takes remote-working in its stride or even as a regular aspect of work, helps employees deal with the scenario better too. At the same time, it should not come across as a culture that negates or undermines the difficulties that remote teams face. Being considerate, patient and empathetic (even in the face of painfully bad internet connection!) often saves the day!
Yours needs to be a culture that does not make remote-working seem like a problem but rather an opportunity that allows the team to collaborate effectively by using innovative and efficient ways. Remote-working does come with several advantages too. Besides allowing employees work access from wherever they are most comfortable, it also ensures that try harder to understand and collaborate better with each other. Moreover, if you have certain teams working out of co-working spaces, it automatically increases your scope to network as an organisation while also increasing your visibility greatly.
Today there are companies like Google that ensure that their workplace has everything that an employee could ever dream of thus making them want to come to work and stay at work. There are also companies like Mozilla who believe in remote working where employees barely have to come to work! As a start-up or a distributed company, you might not be that well-endowed financially to afford Willy Wonka’s lavish and enchanted lifestyle for all your employees. That‘s when your leadership skills are truly tested. Can it stand the test of time and distance? All you need to bear in mind is that your workers are not an army of mechanic Oompa Loompas and success will still be sweet.