Projects that utilize distributed teams pose unique challenges. Active leadership and practices designed to address these challenges are required for success.
What is a Distributed Team?
For the purposes of this article, a Distributed Team is any team where at least one member regularly works from a location that prohibits regular face to face contact with other team members.
The dynamics to which this article refers become more pronounced in direct proportion to the number of remotely based members. They apply to teams brought together for a single project and to a lesser extent to teams with a limited common purpose, for example a company with offices in multiple locations.
Distributed teams have an obvious advantage over those that are locally based. Members can be drawn from a much larger talent pool resulting in higher team competency.
Web-based collaboration tools help facilitate meetings that can surpass the effectiveness of those that are physically attended. Benefits include the ability to record and playback entire meetings for later review as well as digital tools that offer benefits like the ability to save "whiteboards", ad-hoc team survey results and presentations.
Without active leadership team dynamics can quickly degenerate into "us vs. them" complete with unhealthy doses of finger pointing and animosity. This is not an inherent problem with distributed teams, instead it stems from a lack of effective leadership.
The "us vs. them" dynamic develops because people often fail to establish relationships similar to those they have with their local counterparts. The result is a failure to view their remote cohorts as human and they treat them accordingly.
To understand how this happens consider how relationships develop in a shared physical space. People take unstructured time to get to know one another and keep up to date on each other's lives.
By contrast, interactions with remote staff are often highly scripted and impersonal. They're often limited to agenda driven group settings where anything beyond obligatory pleasantries is considered un-businesslike.
For healthy team dynamics to develop, leaders need to promote interactions that mimic those that naturally occur between people that share office space.
- As new remote members are added to the team, encourage, but don't force, team members to setup unstructured introductory meetings. Authenticity is key; be careful not to exert too much pressure. This seemingly small step usually delivers results that often exceed all expectations.
- If available, suggest that colleagues use webcams instead of the phone for one on one conversations.
- Strongly discourage the use of email "CC" and "BCC". While "keeping everyone in the loop" is a good idea, many of us have experienced firsthand how quickly habitual CC users can clog inboxes with information that's only mildly relevant. The bigger problem with this email device is more insidious. Having an "audience" often leads to undesirable social dynamics.
- Encourage frequent interaction between individuals. Insure that conversations between team members aren't restricted to team meetings. Don't force team interactions exclusively through formal channels.
- Encourage occasional in-person visits when practical.
- Individuals with local access to a manager will often find that they have an advantage and will sometimes attempt to unduly place blame. Leaders must thwart the tendency to be influenced by proximity and must never pass judgment before getting both sides of the story.
- Common purpose must be continually reinforced.
- Leading by example is never more important. The leader should highlight and remind everyone of notable individual contributions, while looking for opportunities to underscore the value each member provides.