Jan 18, 2013
THEME: Workplace

Who’s on First? Unlocking the Potential of Dispersed Teams

“So, you work in New York.”
“No, I work in Minneapolis.”
“But you work with Rachel in New York?”
“Yes, and Roshelle in Chicago.”
“Roshelle is in Chicago? I thought she was in New York.”
“Yes, she was in New York with Lisa.”
“Lisa works in New York?”
“No, she works in Minneapolis.”
“I thought Lisa was in New York with Roshelle.”
“Yes, Lisa was in New York.”
“So, you work with Lisa and Rachel in New York?”
“No, I work in Minneapolis with Lisa.”
“But Rachel is in New York?”
“Yes, and Roshelle is in Chicago.”

Although we’ve had a couple Abbott-and-Costello-like exchanges, physical location and where our colleagues sit hardly seems to matter these days. Virtual collaboration tools paired with thoughtful remote teaming strategies are allowing us to collaborate seamlessly—to the point that as consultants few of our clients know (or care) where we’re located. As our clients look to us for insight about workplace trends, our decentralized team can speak with experience to what many of our clients are implementing.

In an effort to capture and share our strategies with a growing population of remote teams, we have developed the following list of best practices.

1. Find your rhythm.

In our local offices, it’s easy to passively absorb key information like project progress through visual cues and overheard conversations. We take notice when teammates work long hours for a deadline, and overhear when our neighbors are excited about a new project. We all have our own schedules and deadlines, but it’s the unspoken, informal and cultural cues that seem to drive the rhythm and intensity of our workspace.

For dispersed teams, communication is more heavily weighted to the scheduled and intentional—such as our Monday morning updates and monthly client calls. However, it’s the informal stuff in between—the pings of instant messages, emails and calls—that set the rhythm of a remote teaming project. The rhythm adapts to the workflow, as the speed to which questions need to be answered grows or quiets down. The rhythm also responds to the needs of the team, decreasing as team members are pulled into other projects or are out on holiday.

Finding the right rhythm, that syncs back with respective schedules and the workflow at hand, is key to keeping the balance between virtual collaboration and heads down work.

2. Can you see my screen?

If we made team t-shirts, this is what they would say. The ability to share work in progress, co-create new solutions, and edit in real time allows us to push work further in five minutes than we would be able to in a string of email attachments and comments over the course of the day.  Creative combinations of tools, such as instant messenger while sharing screens (no verbal communication at all) have allowed us to successfully dialogue project changes in challenging environments, such as subways with spotty cell service and during the power outages of Superstorm Sandy.

The power of instant messaging, a true electronic conversation (and one that doesn’t clog an Inbox or begin to cc the world), has been incredibly useful.  The ability to have the cadence of a conversation, even sprinkled with interruptions and typos [not to mention emoticons], gives our team many of the characteristics of teams working in the same place.

3. Be flexible.

Business hours are even more ambiguous for dispersed teams. This is obviously in part due to time zone differences, but there is also the understanding that each team member has a host of other responsibilities—many of which are unseen by teammates on the other side of the country. Catching up in off hours is a consequence of dispersed teaming. This doesn’t mean teams have to be always on, but it does require a little bit of flexibility for busy schedules that won’t always align.

4. Take advantage of gaps in communication.

It’s 9 AM in LA, but nearly lunch time in New York. The Midwest is knee deep into their workday, while London is headed to a client dinner.

While the bulk of our work hours relies on the overlap to allow for the necessary collaboration and knowledge shares, it’s important to realize the value found in the gaps. The ability to hit pause on constant communication provides a valuable opportunity to focus, while also providing clients with expanded service hours.

5. Build resiliency.

Not all gaps in communication are planned. In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, our team members on the east coast felt the pressure to meet imminent deadlines under very difficult circumstances. Midwestern team members with knowledge of the project were able to quickly step-in and assist, and goals were met with few clients seeming to realize.

Successful remote teaming strategies build resiliency and reinforce business continuity in the face of localized outages.  These types of “seamless emergencies” rely on dispersed teams, a variety of mobile communications when all else fails, and a high level of shared project knowledge throughout the team.

6. Don’t forget to ask about their family.

Did you have a good holiday? How was Lucy’s birthday party?

This is a big one. We are social beings. We all like being asked about ourselves. One team member, Rachel, learned this the hard way—she worked for an international company based in another state from where she worked. One day Rachel got frustrated that getting assistance from headquarters was difficult and limited. Her local leadership asked if she knew much about the person that she called. “Well, no, and I don’t really have time. I have clients left and right that need answers.” His response was simple—“you might want to start by asking how they’re doing and learn more about the people individually” Really?  But I have so much to do; I don’t have time for niceties.  He didn’t need to say another word.  From then on, she paused from the ‘work’ to relate to those she was talking to and got very different results—suddenly the relationships changed and the support became more substantial!  Not everyone, we realize, just ‘needs to get on with it’.  Personal relationships, even if managed only by phone connections, were critical to the success of the engagement.

Our team has had its share of life changing events over the past year—good news like marriage, promotion, great vacations, and personal accomplishments as well as life’s tougher moments with losing people we were close to.  We have created a virtual environment where we are more likely to pick up the phone and tell each other what’s new than we are to talk to our physical neighbors about it. This culture, and collectively high social intelligence of our team, creates a trusting environment within which we’ve been able to succeed.

7. Finally, turn around and say hello to the person sitting next to you.

There’s one more interesting side effect of working on a decentralized team. It’s not rare that the majority of the day is spent on the phone—a few client calls and then speaking to the team the rest of the day working on projects. The result is that our interactions are often limited with the people sitting right next to us. Turn around, say hello to that person. They may be your next teammate. 🙂

Roshelle Ritzenthaler, Rachel Casanova, and Maria Manion contributed to this article.

  1. Geoffrey Maulion
    1:21 pm on January 18, 2013 | Reply

    Great post! I’ve had to deal with very similar conditions including people outside the firm on both the architecture and engineering side and agree with all of your points. (Also similar to your Abbott and Costello routine, we had conference calls which had a person’s name sound similar to one of the engineer’s company name and it got all sorts of confusing.)
    It makes me think we should try putting up a webcam one day out of the week just looking down a project team’s row of desks and share it with the other offices on the team, not for a formal meeting but maybe to capture some of those unspoken and cues. Too much or worth trying?

    • Roshelle Ritzenthale
      8:47 am on January 22, 2013 | Reply

      I think it’s definitely worth a go, and something that could explored with relatively little investment. I’ve worked with a low-tech wormhole before, and it gives the sense that you are on the same team, not in a designer/support relationship.

      • Geoffrey Maulion
        6:30 pm on January 22, 2013 | Reply

        “Low-Tech Wormhole” I like that. Claim it if you coined it! 🙂

  2. Melanie Kahl
    1:22 pm on January 18, 2013 | Reply

    Nice piece, Roshelle! 🙂 Cheers!

    • Roshelle Ritzenthale
      8:41 am on January 21, 2013 | Reply

      Thanks Mel!

  3. Marti Adams
    11:11 am on January 24, 2013 | Reply

    Agreed – great post!

  4. Bryant Rice
    12:12 pm on January 25, 2013 | Reply

    You got it! Great post.

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