The concept of virtual or remote teams is not a new phenomenon. However, advances in technology, globalisation, organisational structures and ways of working have meant that this approach has grown significantly over the last few years.
Working within virtual teams and managing from afar requires a different approach to managing people who are in the same room as you.
It means new communication methodologies and techniques to get the best out of each other, whilst improving organisational and personal performance.
Not having employees working in front of you can at times create obstacles to communication, collaboration, relationship building and knowledge sharing within your team. Therefore the idea of having both a unified and remote workforce can seem contradictory. However I believe that having a team of employees that are both remote and joined up can be possible, you simply need to make sure you are following the below steps.
1. A clear communication strategy
When managing remote workers, it is important that you establish the best means of communication and keep this communication frequent. Regular and inclusive conversations will enable you to communicate common goals whilst establishing the skills each team member contributes toward achieving them. This will build a stronger sense of team spirit and unity.
Email can be a great way to get a message across in certain instances, for example when sharing documents, videos and images to a widely dispersed workforce. In addition, some of your team may be working in different time zones, so a phone call at 3am their time may not be appreciated.
However, the danger of constant email throughout each stage of a wider project is that you can end up with a never ending email thread, people forgetting to cc other people in, conversations getting side-tracked and the common objective being lost.
The way to combat this is by scheduling regular conference calls during which you can effectively lead a real-time conversation with a clear, unified objective. Send an agenda across beforehand and encourage everyone on the call to add to it so that nothing is missed out. Keep the conversation open and give each attendee a chance to speak and provide updates. In doing this, you can have an inclusive conversation, make sure everybody is on the same page, aligned and informed.
2. Minimise absences
Try to avoid any absences on the call – as these calls are your equivalent to team meetings. You need to hear and give updates to each individual, and in turn each individual needs to listen be heard. This is the only way to make sure every remote worker is being kept in the loop and part of their team.
If you find it tricky to find a call time that works for everyone, use an automated scheduling assistant-your email calendar software may come with one or alternatively, try Doodle. When scheduling conference calls, consider the time differences, and keep the calls as close to standard office hours as possible. If you find it is difficult to do this for each team member, then rotate the timings to make sure each worker gets their preferred time slot.
3. Improve intra-communications
In an office environment, team members have ample opportunities to build up both a professional and personal rapport with one another- whether it’s sharing random work ideas across the desk or catching up about the weekend in the elevator. These kinds of impromptu interactions between your staff can foster working relationships and open up lines of work related communication. More so, they help bring your team members together.
Of course this is a tricky thing to replicate, say, when you have one of your team members is in Singapore, another in the UK and six more in America. Conference calls provide the opportunity to encourage small talk and build relationships. However there will be many occasions when conference calls aren’t possible or necessary.
Keep the communication on-going by setting up a group chat – for example in my team we use Microsoft Teams to share successes, ask questions, and mention changes which crop up across our global network on a day to day basis.
4. Encourage knowledge sharing
Time zones won’t be the only thing that will vary between your remote workers. Consider your team’s different strengths and skills, and encourage a culture of knowledge sharing. Just because you aren’t all in the same room, doesn’t mean you cannot get one of your employees to create a webinar, podcast or PDF on their specialist subject.
This will help to unify your team and encourage them to appreciate one another’s value and purpose. You can also do this by publicly praising different members of the team when appropriate.
5. Be perceptive
In a meeting – you can read people’s body language and facial expression to gauge mood, which can help you to identify and diffuse any possible conflicts, tensions or issues between team members. This is something you cannot get on an audio call – so where possible, arrange for group Skype sessions.
Whilst video calling can help mitigate the problem, it can still be tricky to read people’s body language and facial expressions, particularly when you factor in aspects like camera quality and angle. Therefore you should also pay extra attention to people’s voices- identifying any changes in tone, pitch or pace- thereby nipping any potential problems in the bud.
To sum up, uniting a remote workforce mainly involves being conscious and proactive about the potential barriers to joining up your team. These barriers include differing time zones and locations, which can lead to a lack of communication and relationship building between staff.
Moreover, you need to find technological solutions to these barriers, such as video calling, instant messaging and diary scheduling technology, whilst remaining perceptive, inclusive and communicative. In doing this you can achieve what you thought was impossible – a unified, remote workforce.
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