How to Improve Remote Team Collaboration

Sep 27, 2016
12 Min Read

How to Improve Remote Team Collaboration

Vint Cerf is a long-time innovator known for his natty three-piece suits, his work as Google’s chief internet evangelist and as one of the fathers of the Internet.

So when this well-dressed Internet pioneers says that team collaboration among remote workers is a concern, it’s clear that more organizations need to pay attention.

Cert has expressed concern for Google’s remote team members who almost never see one another face to face, often working in different time zones. That means such workers must “work harder to stay in sync,” he says.

That’s why Google started “recompiling groups to make them, if not co-located, at least within one or two time zones of one another so that it was more convenient to interact," he says.

Cert says that frequent opportunities for casual interactions among colleagues is important to not only build better relationships but to “cross-pollinate” ideas among different employee groups. For example, a worker bumping into someone at work and striking up a conversation can help lead to a different perspective about an issue or possibly solve a problem, he explains.

That’s not something that can happen in the same way with a virtual team, which is why Cert says it’s important that remote workers have an opportunity to reinforce workplace relationships with in-person meetings. This ensures that collaborative efforts in the future “are reinforced by these personal experiences,” he says.

Creating opportunities for more interactions among remote teams is something that is a priority for Erin McGinty, director of benefits consulting for TriNet.

McGinty herself works remotely, and holds bi-weekly team meetings along with more casual conversations about benefits news with her remote team. She also talks one-on-one with her team members to work on individual development plans, and encourages team members to “get together and work things out” whenever they need to – without asking for her permission or direction.

“I also try to keep them excited about projects they’re working on,” she says. “I listen to them and look for clues about something that will interest them. Then, I tell them to get together with one another and work on it. “

McGinty says that while that encouragement for collaboration is important, she also pays attention to those who may feel they’re not being heard because they’re not as extroverted or “boisterous” as some team members.

“Sometimes I’ll let that quieter person run the next meeting,” she says. “Or, I’ll travel to wherever this person is so that he or she really feels heard. Sometimes these great thinkers are quiet, but they have great ideas.”

McGinty says she doesn’t necessarily buy into the idea that workers are missing out on anything by not being able to work in person with others.

“Personally, I feel more engaged being alone,” she says. “I don’t miss the water cooler talk.”

It’s estimated by the International Data Corporation that the number of remote workers in the U.S. is expected to surge from 96.2 million in 2015 to 105.4 million by 2020. Gallup research finds that among employees who spend up to 20% of their time remotely, 35% are engaged – but engagement levels drop as employees spend more time off-site. Since worker engagement is critical for collaborative relationships, companies will need to look for technical and non-technical solutions to ensure that workers get the interactions when they need them, experts say.

“The ability to set up a collaborative environment literally within seconds is an extraordinarily powerful tool," as opposed to having to coordinate everybody's calendar and waiting two weeks before we can all put our heads together [in the same room],” Cert says.

At the same time, the collaboration among remote teams can become even more challenging when they are cross-functional.

Hassan Osman, a virtual teams expert and author of “Influencing Virtual Teams: 17 Tactics That Get Things Done with Your Remote Employees,”  says that if companies want remote teams to collaborate more effectively, they need to first set clear and digestible goals that every cross-functional team agrees to and understands.

“And by digestible, I mean concrete and bite-sized goals that try to solve a specific problem – and not world hunger,” he says.

Further, he says that teams must not just communicate, but “over-communicate.”

Frequent check-ins and updates must include all team members, which keeps everyone up to speed and allows for continuous adjustments and corrections from the beginning. “Otherwise,” Osman warns, “virtual teams would slip into their own isolated silos.”

Some other advice for boosting remote team collaboration

  • Understand that leadership is critical. “The manager of a virtual team is like the conductor of an orchestra. He or she is the focal point of the team who needs to ensure everyone is playing to their strengths, and listening to everyone else’s cues,” Osman says. “Virtual teams are highly susceptible to becoming out of tune because everyone is off doing their own thing, and a manager’s role is key to keeping everyone cohesively together, particularly during the early phases of team formation.”
  • Ensure technology is a help, not a hindrance. While remote teams greatly depend on technology, Osman says managers must ensure that the technology is “effective and efficient” in order to facilitate collaboration. “This means that it should help guide teams on doing the right things and on doing things right. Unfortunately, some tools do quite the opposite. You realize that has happened when team members avoid using the latest technology tool – that got adopted because it was popular as opposed to functional – and revert to email or phone calls instead.”
  • Look for the right skills. Team members must feel like they can rely on one another or they won’t develop a key ingredient of collaboration: trust. This means that leaders must determine if each team member has the right technical skills, but also the soft skills such as good communication. He suggests that managers can determine if team members will have the right skills by asking questions such as “Are you comfortable doing this task?” or “Do you have any concerns about this project?”
  • Increase likeability. Being able to form emotional ties among remote team members also is critical to establishing trust. Osman suggests that leaders share personal anecdotes, which will help encourage team members to open up and learn about one another. Beginning or ending meetings with some informal conversation or offering “small gives” such as interesting links to videos or articles can also help members form closer personal bonds, he says. Remaining positive helps encourage team members to do the same, because “no one enjoys working with individuals who are constantly negative and pessimistic,” he says.

Osman adds that more managers need to learn to “over communicate,” a theory that comes from MIT psychologists who called it the “Propinquity Effect.” It states that the more you interact with someone, the more you’ll like them and become friends with them.

“So stay in touch with your team members at least once every day – or every other day – even  if it’s not absolutely essential,” he suggests.

He also says it’s worth the expense for organizations to bring together remote teams to meet face-to-face, especially when long-term projects are involved. If that’s not possible, video conferencing can “definitely help.”

Further, Osman, who manages remote teams around the world, says he’s learned there is one key word a manager can use to exert more influence over virtual teams: “because.”

A Xerox study conducted in the 1970s shows that simply by providing the “because” behind a request, compliance is boosted, no matter the reason. So, it’s better if a manager requests a status update from a remote worker, for example, by stating it’s needed because it needs to be reviewed before the weekend.

Experts say that if managers are worried that their remote team may not be engaged and collaborative, some questions that can spur good conversations include:

  • “What do you need help with? This week? This month?”
  • “Anything in your work world that’s less than stellar or is causing frustration or delays?”
  • “Are you clear on your role and what you should be working on? If not, what aspect needs to be discussed?”
  • “Looking back on the week, is there anything that could have gone better?”
  • “Was there a recent team discussion or meeting where you did not get to share your thoughts? Can you share them now?”
  • “Who do you want to get to know better in the company? Can you set up a virtual chat?”

“I have a human resources background, and many organizations train managers to be managers,” McGinty says. “But as the number of remote workers grows, more managers are going to need to be trained on how to communicate and deal with them.”

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