In the current coronavirus epidemic, one recommendation from health authorities is for people to work from home. There are lots of jobs where this is impossible. It is hard to be a taxi driver, or a nurse, or a professional sportsperson working from home. But for many people amongst the loosely described ‘knowledge workers’, it is entirely feasible. Unless the epidemic burns itself out quickly, we can expect to see a lot more of it.
Most of us have team members and coworkers. So working from home means working in a remote or virtual team. That’s pretty straightforward. We have telephones, email, Skype, Zoom, Slack and a whole range of other tech tools designed for that specific purpose.
We have not evolved for remote working
The problem is that is not how our social interactions naturally work. Humans have evolved to communicate in small groups that will fit around a campfire, say 10 to 12 people. Larger groups break down into subunits. We also evolved to communicate with people we can see.
Research on human communications from the 1960s and 70s showed that in normal conversation, over half the meaning is in non-verbal visual clues such as gesture, facial expression and body posture. How we speak carries most of the rest — the sound of our voice. The actual words account for only about 7% of the meaning.
Normal conversation between people is a high bandwidth activity. The words, the music and the dance all combined compact to convey the subtleties of meaning.
Working in a virtual team, we lose that critical bandwidth. I have yet to see a commercial videoconferencing facility that provides as much information as you get from being in the same room. The subtle sounds, the peripheral vision and the sense of space and how people are using it all go missing. It is harder to convey meaning accurately as we lose vital clues that enable us to understand other people. And if we don’t understand them, if we can’t gauge their reactions to an idea or sense their discomfort, can we work together effectively?
Ten tips for effective remote teamworking.
If you suddenly have to work in a virtual or remote team, here are some things to think about. If you are already doing a lot of remote teamworking, look at these anyway. You may have missed something that could make your team more productive.
- Remote teamworking is like normal teamworking only harder
There’s nothing special about remote teamworking. Exactly the same good practices apply and will solve most of the problems. It is just that you have to focus a lot harder on making it work. Teams that can’t work face-to-face are more brittle and prone to failure. Things get dropped down the cracks, and small frustrations can blow up into big issues very quickly.
- Use your best bandwidth for the most important tasks
Different activities require different amounts of social bandwidth. If you can, focus your bandwidth on the tasks that need it most. Thomas Allen of the MIT Sloan School studied how information flows in organisations for many years. He talked about some activities working well when you are limited to email, phone and videoconference, and others being virtually impossible. He classified tasks in ascending order of social bandwidth:
- Coordination – delivering a set of tasks where the plan is well understood, and everyone knows their role. This is fairly easy to do remotely. It’s about keeping all the plates spinning. People can push on with their own activities, and if they need input from elsewhere, they know who to go to and how to get it. For example, putting together regular quarterly reports.
- Cooperation – people have their own skills and areas of activity, but they need to work with others to get the job done. Slightly more difficult, but based on established roles. Problem-solving within clear boundaries. For example, sales and customer service working together to resolve a supply issue.
- Inspiration – working together creatively to solve brand-new problems, or to create new products, services and systems. In Tom Allen’s view almost impossible to achieve remotely. The rapid-fire interactions, the springboard of ideas, and let’s be honest the excitement and shouting, need much more bandwidth than today’s remote teamworking tools can supply. Once the holodeck is real, we may get there!
- Socialise your sessions
There is an understandable tendency to be professional, businesslike and focused on the task in a virtual team meeting. But face-to-face team meetings are not like that. There’s chatting, introductions and the rituals of coffee before everyone gets down to business. That’s when people talk about the sport last weekend, Alice’s vacation, or progress on John’s new extension. It turns out that in a typical business meeting over half the conversations start on a social topic, not the official subject of the meeting. With online sessions, it is less than 10%. Make sure you socialise your virtual meetings. It’s human, it’s natural, and it builds trust.
- Keep people in the loop
If one part of the virtual team is in a decision centre, a head office or a regional centre, the distant members of the team can feel out of the loop. To fear that important decisions are made without their input or knowledge. It may be simpler and quicker for the two or three of you in one place to sort out a problem and tell the rest of the team the answer, but that builds paranoia. Trust is essential to effective teamworking. Over-communication is much better than under-communication when working with a scattered group.
- Clarity is essential
If getting clarity about the strategy, plan and roles and responsibilities is important for a co-located team, it is vital for a distributed team. There are so many opportunities for different groups and individuals to drift from the agreed programme without regular nudges from constant contact to keep things aligned. Be very clear what the team is for, who is in the team, milestones and deliverables, and roles and responsibilities. RACI charts are a handy tool.
- Culture plays a big role
Culture plays a big part in any team, and the effect is greater when working remotely. When team members come from different countries, cultural differences will be expected and recognised, but there are also regional, corporate and functional differences. Even within a single company, people can speak the same language whilst speaking a different language. Face-to-face these cultural differences and the misunderstandings they cause are visible, and a good leader can handle them. Operating at a distance, people can easily come away with a completely different view of what was discussed and what decision or actions agreed on. Think about the cultures you are dealing with, respect them, and make sure they do not lead to confusion.
- Build the rhythm and the touch-points
Co-located teams usually build a rhythm of regular meetings and conversations that help to drive their projects and activities. Distributed teams find it much harder. There is no natural equivalent of the Monday morning ‘huddle’ to plan the week’s actions. When people are in different locations running on different timetables, it is important to make the effort to create touch-points that bring the team together. Otherwise, they will gradually drift apart.
- Know the team
In a face-to-face meeting, we constantly use non-verbal communication. We sense when somebody is uncomfortable, or wants to break in with a comment. Even then, someone quiet and thoughtful finds it harder to be heard than someone loud and enthusiastic. If we are not face-to-face, it is harder to make sure that everyone is heard and contributes. Knowing the team and their styles helps to spot the people who have dropped out of the discussion and to gently draw them back into it.
- Process helps
We all know how we should run meetings. Agendas sent out in advance, clarity about what is for information, what is for discussion and what is for decision, minutes issued immediately afterwards, and so on. We also know that in practice, a lot of this gets ignored. Working face-to-face it is easy to short-circuit these procedures without causing any problems. The same is not true of virtual meetings. Those irritating processes that we all avoid if we can suddenly become much more valuable. In virtual teams, process is your friend.
- Don’t forget the one-to-ones
Any team will typically have regular one-to-ones between the leader/manager and team members. These soon get pushed out of the way in distributed teams. If you are a leader/manager make sure you have a regular check-in with every team member. Even if it’s just a quick call to make sure everything is okay. If you are a team member, make sure you’re getting those regular one-to-ones with your manager. It needs discipline, and it has to be scheduled because people are scattered and mobile. You can’t grab a quick coffee with someone when you spot them in the office. Again, if you have regular contacts with people in the same location as you, those on the outside can easily grow resentful.
Working remotely is not as easy as working in co-located teams, but with care and focus it can be a viable alternative.