Technology has given business owners and manager an abundance of options in how, where, and when to do business. Many companies have introduced technologies that enable employees to telecommute. Giving employees this option increases productivity 13%, reduces turnover, improves morale, reduces a firm’s environmental impact, and can save an average of $11,000 per employee annually. Sound too good to be true? It is and it isn’t.
The key to reaping all of the benefits of telecommuting means putting in work up-front to ensure that you can build and manage teams that are able to effectively operate remotely. Small business teams may comprise of all the employees that work for the firm, while larger businesses may segment groups of employees into specialized teams, such as HR, sales, and supply chain.
According to Zapier, which has operated with a remote workforce since its formation in 2011, there are 3 ingredients needed to make a remote teamwork: Team, Tools, and Process.
Wade Foster, one of the three founders of Zapier, points out that not everyone can work in a remote environment; so, finding the right people is critical. In his book, Good to Great, Jim Collins writes, “leaders of companies that go from good to great start not with “where” but with “who.” They start by getting the right people on the bus, the wrong people off the bus, and the right people in the right seats.”
Who are the right people for a remote team? Mr. Foster gives 5 guidelines for getting the right people for a remote team:
- Hire doers
- Hire people you can trust
- Trust the people you hire
- Hire people who can write
- Hire people who are ok without a social workspace
Once you have the right type of people, you have to get them to work as a team. Bruce Tuckman’s 1965 article, “Developmental Sequence in Small Groups”, discusses four stages of team development: “forming, storming, norming, and performing”. While these stages were developed for teams physically working together, the same principles apply to remote teams:
Once it has been decided who will work on a team the members must get to know one another. This is known as forming (onboarding may also be part of this stage). Most experts who work with remote teams will argue that at least one initial face-to-face meeting can increase a group’s effectiveness significantly. You need to develop a sense of shared purpose, sympathy, and comradery.
Rebecca Knight’s How to Manage Remote Direct Reports discusses some key elements to establishing successful remote teams. In the article, Mark Mortensen, associate professor of Organizational Behavior at INSEAD, recommends visiting remote workers regularly especially in the early stages. “If you can get yourself to their location when you first start working together, that’s invaluable,” he says. “Seeing people one-on-one, face-to-face sets the tone and gives people a sense of comfort.” As the arrangement stabilizes, “predictability is more important than a particular frequency,” he says. “If your direct report knows you’re there every six months, it helps build trust.”
Keith Ferrazzi, the founder of Ferrazzi Greenlight, says that social bonding “builds essential empathy, trust, and camaraderie.” This can be a simple as “chewing the fat” for the first few minutes of a video conference. Ask about weekend plans, children, pets, and everything else you might chat about in a normal work environment.
Tips for successfully forming a team:
- Create a charter that clearly outlines the group structure, goals, roles, and approaches to problem-solving.
- Limit teams to a maximum of 12 members.
- Focus on the team’s successes, not an individual member’s accomplishments.
This stage implies a certain amount of friction between members of the group, team leaders, and the overall structure of the group. People will start to push the boundaries of the team and a healthy level of internal conflict should be expected. Healthy is the key word! Many teams fail during this stage because one or more members cannot find a compromise between their preferred working style and other individual’s styles. Here are some quick tips to get through the storming phase:
- Leaders must focus on the team during this stage. Do NOT leave them to bicker and quarrel without a clear goal and strong leadership.
- Focus on getting to the next stage and avoid lingering in this stage for too long.
- Allow group members to express frustration and address it in a constructive way.
Once the storming stage has passed, it is time to actually get some work done. Team members should be expected to minimize conflict and deal with it in a constructive way at this stage. Collaboration should be the ultimate goal. Through the forming and storming phases, members should have learned how to address differences in opinion and channel communications toward finding a solution.
The focus should now be the final goal (the reason the team was formed in the first place) and all members should be motivated to accomplish that goal. A healthy team dynamic will allow members to apply their individual skills toward the accomplishment of the team’s goal.
It is important to note that not all teams progress through these steps in a linear way. Some teams may revert back to the storming phase over and over again. Others may never leave the forming stage because the members are so averse to conflict that no one steps up to move the process forward. Furthermore, it is not guaranteed that all teams can achieve the performing stage. Many will float in the norming phase long enough to accomplish their individual roles, but miss the mark on achieving the team’s goal.
Once the team has been selected and established, what tools are available to leaders that manage remote teams? Zapier recommends the following tools:
- Slack, Team communication for the 21st century
- Slack is a chatroom-based virtual office that offers channels for projects, topics, and teams. The platform allows direct messages, voice and video calls, drag-and-drop file sharing, and the ability to search past communications. It follows you wherever you go and the basic platform is free.
- An Asynchronous Communication Platform
- Zapier built their own platform, but there are many available. Some of these platforms that may be familiar to the laymen would be email, Reddit, or a standard blog. It is not as fast-paced as a chatroom but allows users to communicate larger ideas that need fastidious review and discussion.
- Trello lets you work more collaboratively and get more done.
- This is another free tool that allows teams to create boards that can include to-do lists, leads, and project elements. Think of it as a to-do list on steroids that is shared with the whole team.
- Don’t like Trello? Check out Wunderlist.
- Google Drive, Docs, Sheets, Slides
- Hackpad, which was recently acquired by Dropbox, boasts “instant collaboration”.
- GoToMeeting is one of many video conferencing tools (See also: Skype, Google Hangouts, Join.me, Lifesize, Zoom, and more) I recommend looking at PC Magazine’s The Best Video Conferencing Software of 2016 to compare and contrast the various platforms against your needs.
- Ever been in a meeting that has no clear purpose, discusses topics that have already been discussed, or veers off course early in the meeting? Every decent manager can tell you that a clear agenda can avoid all of the above meeting taboos, but I have not seen a tool quite so powerful in giving meeting leaders and participants a clear platform to create an effective meeting agenda as Agreedo does. The basic package is free (4 meetings, 3 participants, 1 attachment) and the Premium package is $7.90 per month for unlimited meetings, participants, and attachments.
- World Time Buddy
- WTB is a convenient world clock, a time zone converter, and an online meeting scheduler. It’s one of the best online productivity tools for those often finding themselves traveling, in flights, in online meetings or just calling friends and family abroad.
- Modern telecommunication technologies, such as voice over IP systems, can allow remote workers to operate within the phone system as if they were sitting in the office. Calls can be transferred to remote extensions, employees can participate in conference calls, and employees can make calls from the office number, no matter where they are working. Many systems offer dashboards that allow users to collaborate with on and off premise employees seamlessly.
The final element of a successful remote team is the process, or how the team will work. This should not be a rigid set of procedures that remain static. A dynamic process that solicits feedback, implements changes, and is in constant flux can be quite powerful to a small company that competes on an innovative platform.
According to Dainius Runkevicius’s The Fundamentals of Running a Successful Remote Team, “[TrackDuck] has been a purely flat and partly remote organization. Being part of this type of organization I have realized that when company’s processes aren’t paralyzed in a rigid corporate hierarchy and employees don’t get caught up in micromanaging, remote working doesn’t seem to be impossible.”
Different companies have different processes. There is no one-size-fits-all process that will work for everyone. Emphasizing culture, establishing norms and expectations, scheduling regular team meetings, and creating overflow channels are a few of the things that might be established within a process.
If you are considering starting a remote team, or if your remote team is not living up to your expectations, then check out Wade Foster’s Ultimate Guide to Remote Work