We call them “Virtual teams” but the only thing virtual about these teams is their cyber office. Otherwise, these teams are made up of real people solving real problems and producing real deliverables. (Are you virtually working, or really working?) These teams have some special challenges and there are three dimensions of communication you need to know if you are leading one.
Distributed Teams are More Challenging
Let’s start with the problem. Why treat these teams any differently than any project team? What’s special? Distance. Which translates into several specific challenges:
First, where’s the informal communication that happens at the coffee pot or water cooler? “So tell me, Eric, how many of these kinds of project have you worked on?” or “I have a few simple questions I didn’t really want to raise in the team meeting – you know, I didn’t want to look dumb, but…”
Second, what are you going to do about that old rule of thumb that 75% of communication is non-verbal when the only communication you have is verbal or written?
Now add that most teams hit headwinds and they rely on trust and commitment to stick together when the going gets rough. Can you build trust and commitment across time zones?
Then there’s the logistics: What time do you meet? And where do you keep the project’s “stuff”?
The Three C’s of Leading Distributed Teams
Notice the key term is leading. Not organizing, but leading. Former Secretary of State and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Colin Powell emphasizes that “leaders have followers.” To be a leader of a distributed group of people that you don’t see daily, be conscious of three dimensions of communication:
C1. Communicate using all the regular rules and tools, only do more of it and be much more formal. We’re talking about clear goals, plans, agendas, issues lists, and ground rules. Every team benefits from the structure that these proven techniques provide, but a team with little informal interaction needs it twice as much (maybe more). Go back and review what you know about team dynamics and make sure to apply it to this distributed team.
C2. Communicate in ways you would not have used before. Here’s where you address the lack of informal communication and non-verbal cues. The first rule is to increase your focus on relationship building. Project managers are naturally task oriented, and quite often more focused on results than relationships. But we also know that results depend upon positive team relationships. As the leader, consciously choose to invest more time building interpersonal relationships and communication channels within the team. Here are some straightforward tactics:
As usual, get the team into the Forming phase at a project launch where everybody meets face-to-face, but do it a little differently. Use this event to establish ground rules and to actively address the risks associated with distance. Actually begin working together by getting into the details of planning the project. Planning requires decision making at a detailed level, so people will have to get off the sidelines and into the game. You are establishing team habits during this activity so watch the natural dynamics and be a strong facilitator so the extraverts don’t trample the introverts. All of that is normal. But add this twist: Debrief this activity by focusing on what the team learned about working with each other and brainstorm how they’d do the same type of planning in a month when they aren’t together.
Get frequent feedback from the team on how well they work together. Again, this is something you should do for any project, but for this project do it more frequently and each time have a specific focus. End each status meeting with a “teamwork continuous improvement” topic. For example, “Are people getting their questions answered fast enough?” or “Do you feel your input to decisions is being heard by the other team members and the leader?” Be sure to share and act on the feedback you receive and you’ll build trust.
Repeat personal introductions throughout the project. A quick profile of an individual team member at each status meeting will remind everyone that they are working with people, not just voices on the phone. Keep it to three minutes and use a common format to describe professional background and some personal interests such as family or hobbies.
Increase the ‘atta-boys’, both one-on-one and at team meetings. Most people need interpersonal interaction. Design your team meetings so there is some ‘human time’ along with the business. This will take more effort on your part, but it is an investment in building connections between people.
Increase the number of one-on-one conversations you have with team members so you gain a sense of their communication style and personality. This is the extra communication that makes up for the lack of non-verbal communication.
HOT TIP! Keep meetings shorter but have them more frequently. The daily stand-up meeting used on Agile projects is a model that reinforces steady communication.
C3. Communicate using collaboration technology. Face it; the technology is why distributed teams are possible. This technology is always evolving but there are some well-established categories of collaboration technology:
Common access and configuration management of electronic documents. All your project management documents can be centrally accessible yet with controlled access.
There are dozens of ways to make voice and video calls for free, anywhere in the world that has a fast Internet connection. With a video call, you can build a relationship the old-fashioned way, face-to-face.
Integrate anonymous survey tools into your “teamwork continuous improvement” efforts.
Microsoft Project allows you to easily assign tasks and collect status using its synchronize with SharePoint features.
Online meeting spaces allow you to view a common document or presentation and take turns as the author.
Risk and Opportunity
A distributed team is just one more project risk. Discuss it, break it down, identify mitigation strategies and monitor the risk. Then turn it over and see the opportunities it brings!