How do you optimize remote teams?

You might have noticed something that I’ll cop to.

I had a run there about a year ago on this blog (which means far fewer people noticed) where I’d pose an open ended question like this one in an attempt to make a call for comments. The only problem was, my readership was so low (and perhaps the questions so uninteresting) that I didn’t get many responses.

What you may have noticed is that I revived this technique recently, only I post the questions on LinkedIn Answers which has a much larger audience. It has worked pretty well so far and I’ve received some interesting answers.

This month, the question is around remote teams. I work in an international company and a day never goes by when I’m not on the phone with someone in another time zone. Achieving some sense of team across those physical boundaries can be difficult and I’ve written before (Google Words, for example) of how great managers I’ve had have dealt with this.

Feel free to add your own comments to this, but here are the responses I got to the question:

How do you optimize remote teams?

Dave Russell provided what I thought was the best answer with a couple of suggestions, the affinity grouping one I found especially astute:

“Field trips — get everyone together every so often to accomplish some work related function. However, when they veer off course, don’t become a rabid ‘facilitator’ border collie, constantly wrangling them in. Allow the participants to get to know one another. Be on the lookout for the loners in this situation — those who won’t come out of their caves at all. They may just be ‘shy’, but they also may just not be good team players. If you need a team attitude, hire for that and always validate your hiring decisions.

Ice breakers – before and after meetings, allow the participants to babble a bit about things going on in their respective worlds.

Groupware tools – hook up your team through instant messaging tools that allow spontaneous conversations and spontaneous groups to form.

Pay attention to who is developing affinity for whom and who remains an outsider. Understand the social constraints which have caused this outsider to remain as such. Did everyone else work together before? Are others taking more trips in common? How can you shake things up to get the outsider introduced into the fold? When all else fails, if teamwork is most important above all else in their current role, see how they might better serve in a different role.”

Don Perkins made a great point about knowing enough about your teammates that you understand them personally:

“Ask yourself – what are the names of my team member’s children? Better yet ask them.”

In 10 years of teleworking, I certainly agree with James MacLennan’s point about getting people together (which is similar to the “field trip” comment above):

“It may sound expensive, but I firmly believe you need to get some face time with folks on your team – no matter where in the world they sit. Even if it’s just once a year or so – there truly is nothing more impactful then going out for dinner and/or some beers, finding common interests away from work (soccer is my latest favorite). All the collaboration tools in the world (aiw) can’t do as much good as face time.”

Finally, fellow HPer Girishwar Chandpur came up with a nice list as well (my favorite being the “water cooler” comment):

“1. Regular facetime with the stakeholders on the projects you want your remote team member working on
2. As far as possible, assign them projects that relate to their geography so there is good work life balance
3. A qualification to point 2, while attempting to do justice to their time zones, do not make them feel like scavengers.. looking for leftovers and scraps of work to clear on a bigger project driven by someone else
4. Culturally orient yourself.. and if you can make an effort to send them personalized greetings on some important festivals or important days.. that really is a gesture that will go a long way..
5. Realize that working in a different geographical location and mostly over the phone, can not in most cases achieve the same agility and error free results… as working in an environment where you can walk over to someone for a question or doubt
6. Make impromptu calls to your employees just for a “virtual water cooler session” to discuss something casual and not intense business… since that cannot happen in reality.. and dont wait just for weekly or monhly one on one sessions… “

How about you?

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5 Responses to “How do you optimize remote teams?”

  1. Chris Carpinello Says:

    I wholeheartedly agree with James MacLennan’s point about getting people together. Several months prior to meeting partners on a joint development project, communication was strained. Once everyone spent a few days together and got to know each other, the project went much smoother.

  2. Raymon David Says:

    I think the notion of meeting physically is going to get interesting because with costs of fuel going up, travel is getting to be really high. It will probably force other creative ideas. Like multi-people video conferencing.. or what about Second Life? I wander if anyone has experimented with those options.

  3. petecj2 Says:

    @Raymon and @Chris – Important points both. The high cost of travel makes it prohibitive to ALWAYS meet face to face, but you have to do it every once in awhile to humanize everybody. Facial expressions and body language make a big difference. Multi-point video is an order of magnitude more complex and expensive than point to point is, but I like that Second Life idea.

    —Pete

  4. Scott Says:

    1. Use SCRUM meetings even if it’s not a programming project. Small course corrections are much easier than big ones.
    2. Use video conferencing. Most communication comes from body language.
    3. On conference calls carefully listen to the persons tone. The real truth comes from the way something is said.
    4. Kick off the design phase of the project onsite. This ensures everyone understands their role and how the project will fell together: large = 2 full weeks, medium = 1 full week, small = 1 to 2 days. During this time mainly focus on process.

  5. petecj2 Says:

    @Scott – “The real truth comes from the way something is said.” That’s pretty brilliant and true in lots of different contexts, thanks for the comment.

    —Pete

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