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Staying Connected When Teams Disperse

Nancy Settle-Murphy

When people work side by side every day, they develop a certain rhythm, a way of collaborating that relies in large part on the familiarity and trust they have built up over the years. So what happens to those close-knit working relationships when offices close, people move and team members are now scattered too far away to meet regularly? How can they replicate the kind of close contact they once had that's so instrumental to close collaboration?

That's the question Chris Hood, Program Manager, the HP Workplace from Hewlett Packard in N.C., and I set out to answer in this article. We both work with teams that have been displaced due to a variety of causes, including office space reductions, re-organizations, acquisitions, new partnerships and, for an increasing number of people, the desire to work from a variety of places outside the office in pursuit of greater work-life balance.

In some cases, teams have some sort of transformation event or date when they officially become a virtual team. But oftentimes, the team gradually becomes dispersed without anyone naming it as such. Some people may start working at home more often or their jobs require them to be offsite more. Whether the change is gradual or abrupt, teams moving from face-to-face to virtual need to rethink how they'll communicate and collaborate in the absence of the physical presence they have grown used to.

In this article, Chris and I offer guidelines for business leaders and team members as they seek ways to remain connected despite the distance that now separates them.

Plan face-to-face meetings with a purpose. Carefully think through what you're trying to get out of these periodic in-person meetings. Instead of creating an agenda that's full of presentations, progress- reporting and fact-sharing, consider how you can use at least some of the time for activities and conversations that build trust, nurture relationships and provide some type of support. Allow members a good balance of social and business interaction. Dinner and a beer after work may be just as important to the mission and success of the team as the formal business content. Good teams work best when people understand each other well. This understanding is often broadened and deepened in a social context and opens up greater levels of commitment between individuals.

Use multiple ways to connect. Whatever combination of technologies your team chooses to use to maintain strong connections -- whether phone, web, videoconference or email -- make sure that everyone is comfortable and confident in using the chosen tools. Don't assume that everyone knows how to use everything. At first, err on the side of using tools everyone knows, even if the tools have limited functionality. Once people are comfortable communicating in the absence of face-to-face, add new capabilities with a clear purpose. For example, move from a tool that allows people to share desktops, to one that has an electronic flipchart capability for brainstorming and problem solving. Be explicit as to how certain tools will help the team to achieve certain goals and drive their use. For example, a team portal may be used to enable people to post, access and edit documents, or weekly con calls may be the chief venue for surfacing issues. Consider creating an explicit matrix, especially useful for new team members.

Create a team communications plan with desired performance goals as the starting point. With a virtual team, you must be far more explicit about roles, deliverables and critical interdependencies, since there are few chances to correct mistaken assumptions. Rather than simply listing a variety of possible communication vehicles, consider the desired goals of the team and individual members first and work from there. For example, if the team has to develop a new service within 90 days, who needs to know and when? Does everyone need the same information at the same time? What's the best way to get the information out? Realize that many face-to-face teams assume that because they work close by, they must be communicating successfully. In reality, co-located teams actually spend a lot less time face-to-face than one would think. In the average HP office for example, only 7 out of 20 workstations are typically occupied at any given time. Because virtual teams are forced to be more disciplined about communications planning, they frequently outperform co-located teams, whose communications processes tend to be more casual and intermittent.

Invest in giving people what they need to use tools to their best advantage. Make thoughtful trade-offs as you evaluate the expected ROI for the team, especially in terms of time saved, productivity boosted, and the quality of work increased. Consider providing training and include discussions as to how best to leverage which tools as part of that training. Take the time to understand how various capabilities can be used to help the team work more successfully, and consider how best to get them up to speed. For example, when introducing a new capability, consider investing 5-10 minutes up front to make sure everyone feels comfortable. Or refer people to quick demo or training so they can test-run the new features before going live. Once the team agrees on a set of tools, don't let individuals back out of using certain applications. Instead, find ways to help them be more confident and capable.

Establish team ground rules for meeting participation and enforce them for everyone. For example, is some multitasking during con calls tolerated? If so, under what conditions and for how long? Is everyone on the team expected to attend Monday morning meetings? If not, who's optional? Must everyone come prepared for the status review meeting, or is it okay to play catch up on the call? Establish ground rules as a team, and be prepared to remind people frequently, at least up front. For example, you might ask everyone to take a couple of minutes to finish that last email and clear their minds and desktops of everything unrelated to the meeting at hand. People who have worked together for a while might assume they have more leeway to come late or unprepared. But when working as a virtual team, such sloppiness is tolerated less well, given how well-orchestrated team meetings need to squeeze the best thinking out of every minute.

Consider how team members will reach out to one another. For example, if a team member sends an instant message (IM) to another team member, should s/he expect a reply within a certain period of time? Or is email the preferred way team members ask for help or try to arrange a phone call? Do members pass IMs back and forth during team meetings, or is there a ground rule of total transparency for all communications during team meetings? Whatever your team decides, make sure all members have access to the same capabilities, especially if people work in different groups.

Create a level playing field. Avoid "hybrid" team meetings where some are physically together while others are remote. Not only is this often patently unfair -- with people in room smirking or rolling their eyes as their remote colleagues speak -- but the energy of everyone is sapped under the strain of trying to make sure that everyone is heard and included. Redesign your working sessions so that everyone is either remote or face-to-face, or drastically minimize the time remote participation as needed. This does not mean, of course, that small teams of people can't convene face-to-face if they need to collaborate on a particular task or projects.

Make tools easy to use and keep content current. Whatever platforms the team chooses to use should be universal and simple to use and ubiquitous. If anyone on the team is outside of the organization, choose tools that can be used by everyone while preserving the integrity of data within an organization. Information-sharing systems work best when people can update content easily on their own, rather than relying on a web administrator. For example, with SharePoint, anyone can update information or access the latest file easily and quickly. Keeping content current greatly increases the likelihood it will be used by team members.

Retain personal connections. Check in periodically with team members via phone at predictable times. Phone check-ins almost always need to be scheduled, since it's unlikely people can drop into each other's virtual offices and expect each other to be magically waiting for that call. Try for at least once every couple of weeks, especially if it's a new team or one that's going through tough times. It's much harder to discover that a team member is losing steam if you don't create opportunities for real-time 1:1 conversations.

Bolster critical management skills. It is vitally important to break down the "tyranny of distance" that can happen so easily with dispersed teams. Managers of remote teams must be available, accessible and responsive, especially when team members have issues or questions. Sharp listening skills help make up for the lack of visual clues when people communicate via email, phone or IM. Perhaps most important: A highly-transparent, management-by-objective process, where the team defines success metrics in advance, along with a clear vision, as to what success will look like once the team achieves it. Only then can each team member truly understand the value and importance of his or her own contribution to the team's effort. Without that understanding, commitment and engagement are unlikely to follow.

People who are accustomed to interacting in person can't always make the switch to collaborating remotely, especially if the transition to virtual teamwork is fairly swift. Check in frequently with those likely to have the toughest time in the absence of face-to- face communications. Seek advice from those who are more comfortable operating in a virtual environment as to what tools or processes they might recommend to create a more level playing field. Be prepared to make many changes along the way as you and your team find new ways to collaborate successfully from afar.

About the Author
Nancy Settle-Murphy is a facilitator of remote and face-to-face meetings, trainer, presenter and author of many articles and white papers aimed at getting the most out of remote teams, especially those that span cultures and time zones. Go to Nancy's Web site for more information about her services, including workshops and webinars.

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