Of note, the recent explosion of tech jobs in the US has concentrated in 5 metro areas: Boston, San Diego, San Francisco, San Jose, and Seattle. These coastal urban centers have swallowed up 90% of the 256,063 tech jobs created from 2005-2017, highlighting a trend of mass migration to creative hubs. Following the promise of high-paying jobs, and perceived better opportunities in general, many professionals flock to these cities. However, many companies and professionals reconsider taking this move themselves when reflecting on the high costs of living in such constricted metros.
This, among other factors, has contributed to the rise in distributed (or virtual) teams. Some workers have opted for remote work because they can’t afford to live in expensive seaside cities. Others do so because they value flexibility or actually prefer to live further away from the hustle and bustle of crowded cityscapes.
Similarly, some employers are “going remote” to attract the untapped potential in rural America, or to avoid the costliness of operating businesses within the boundaries of these titans of commerce.
For good reason, distributed teams are on the rise, but doing them right can be a challenge. Here are several principles to keep in mind to ensure that your team culture remains effective and that distributed arrangements work well for everybody involved.
Fourteen Guidelines for Distributed Teams
Have clear communication expectations. Miscommunication and unequal access to information are uniquely significant trust-breakers on remote teams. Create a charter that establishes communication norms for remote meetings, such as avoiding background noise, sidebar conversations, interrupting, or expecting team members to speak clearly, listen attentively, and not dominate conversations. Also, include guidelines on which communication modes to use in which circumstances (i.e., when to use email versus phone call versus taking the time to create and share a document.)
Assure expectations and agreements are clear. Incorrect assumptions about expectations and agreements are common but they often take more time to identify with distributed teams. Get team members in the habit of sending short summary emails to each other to confirm understanding.
Hold brief, daily conference calls. When team members are hearing how other members are getting things done they all feel pressure to get things done (which is a good thing). Create a clear understanding that the calls will be brief (only as long as necessary and never longer than 30 minutes) and that everyone must attend at least four per week. Everyone on the call shares. Change the call time every three months if team members work in different time zones.
Assure all team members can see each other. Make sure everyone has high-quality visual capability and establish standard tools for desktop sharing, instant messaging, voice, video, and back-channel communication.
Inconvenience everyone equally. They may not say it but team members know if they have to meet at times that are more convenient for others. This is a resentment builder and trust-breaker.
Get the team together physically early-on. The kind of relational rapport, trust, and understanding that can be built in-person is impossible to create virtually. If possible, get together in-person early on, and whenever possible.
Assure clarity of roles, dependencies, and connection to the big picture. These things are important for every team, but the increased autonomy of remote teams makes these things even more important. Make sure all team members have enough clarity on these things with each other to eliminate or at least greatly reduce the potential for confusion. Also, tying these things to a compelling big picture is essential for emotional and intellectual connection and buy-in.
Avoid the word “virtual.” Using the word “virtual” when describing or talking about the team can create a subconscious message that the team isn’t real. Having a team moniker or even calling it a “distributed team” typically creates a different perception.
Assign roles, not tasks. Distributed teams are, by nature, more autonomous. If you are focusing on the details of how a task should be done, you are being too specific and need to change your paradigm. . . or get different team members.
Create a practical, useful daily alignment tool. This compliments and supports other best practices. When following up on this, ask, “What have you gotten done today?” or “What is complete now?” and not “What are you working on?” This reinforces results, not effort.
Be scrupulously fair. Avoid the temptation to rely more on team members that are on-site. Even appearances or suggestions of favoritism break trust. Give every team member the opportunity to excel, contribute, and be recognized.
[Read “Creativity Is a Human Universal”]
Focus more on ownership, less on accountability. Due to the increased autonomy of distributed teams, ownership (“This is mine”) instead of accountability (“I’m responsible for this”) is critical.
Take time at meetings for personal banter. When teams meet in person informal rapport building conversations are common. Allowing some time for this type of good natured banter before getting down to business helps build and maintain relationships between remote team members.
Don’t neglect one-on-ones. It’s essential to build a relationship with each individual member so they know they are important to you. One important variable is to consider their Behavior Style preference and the kind of communication behaviors that meet their needs.
Are Remote Teams Really the Future?
On a global level, 70% of people work remotely at least once per week while 53% telecommute at least half the week. As the trend toward more professionals working remotely continues, managers and business leaders would be wise to get ahead of the curve. Begin introducing remote work opportunities for team members as much as makes sense given company needs. And be sure to have some of the aforementioned principles in place before shifting team members toward fully remote work.
Whether you’re a company who doesn’t want to be limited by geography or desires to offer your employees (current and prospective) a higher quality of life, it might make sense to transition toward a more distributed team model. Just be sure you’re aware of the potential pitfalls and put in place the cultural structures necessary to achieve success.