Teams thrive when individuals play to their unique strengths, uniquely contributing to a shared, greater goal. But if you and your teammates are working at different times of the day, in different parts of the world, the team will need to work together a little differently. What does effective collaboration look like in a distributed team like this?
The challenges of collaborating in a distributed team
A distributed team is advantageous for a number of reasons. Workers have autonomy and freedom to create a schedule maximizing productivity, but the downside is they can often feel isolated.
Does the team know you’re working?
Are you working on the right things?
Are you missing out on something important?
A collaboration and communication rhythm is important because it keeps the team in stride together, rather than acting as disconnected individuals.
On the other hand, your communication rhythm can swing too far in the other direction. In an effort to stay connected, you may opt for frequent video chats and instant messaging. Now, the team feels connected and there are no problems with isolation.
But instead, you have the other problem of distractions, and never being able to shut down work. Rather than focusing intensely on projects, you feel productive with quick chats and emails with teammates.
The key to collaboration is finding the perfect balance in being always-on and completely isolated.
Make the tasks and projects clear
The enemy of quality team productivity is aimless busy-ness. When priorities are not clearly defined, people will fill time with busy work. Meetings, quick chats, constantly checking email are all activities to keep busy. But is anything really getting done?
In order to succeed in a distributed team, you need to have clarity over the key priorities for your team. Then those priorities move down to the individual level.
Your work should revolve around the key tasks and projects. Then when you communicate, you can do it with a purpose. Your chats and meetings are related to the project.
Everyone should have visibility to the status of the project and where it stands. There is no ambiguity to what’s being discussed. It doesn’t matter if you are working different hours or where you are, everyone can see where the task stand and what needs to be done.
With ambiguous tasks and priorities, you end up with unmet expectations. Team members all think they are working hard, but are frustrated with others because they aren’t helping enough. What’s really happening is everyone is focused on their own interpretation of the priorities.
When the tasks are clear, you remove ambiguity. This clarity is even more important in a distributed team where you don’t pick up on key projects through office chatter.
Be consistent with tools
Progress with technology is the entire reason this conversation about distributed work is even possible. Teammates can be anywhere in the world and can speak face to face in real-time.
You just have to be careful your reliance on technology doesn’t become a distraction of its own. As technology has developed, so too has the number of systems being used to run a business, volume of information and speed at which it is all moving. The average business is now using a staggering 129 apps—an increase of 68% over the last four years.
Make sure your team is consistent with collaboration tools. A core stack of tools for chat, project management and meetings should achieve most of what’s needed. Find what works best for your team and keep everyone on the same stack of tools.
Communicate with purpose
Have a plan for every meeting
Lack of communication can destroy collaboration. However, an equally important challenge is unnecessary communication. Time is your most valuable resource, so use it purposefully. Meetings and calls will take everyone involved away from their important tasks so don’t waste them.
Meetings are essential for collaboration and maintaining a team atmosphere, so make sure you are following these best practices.
Create an agenda: A good practice for communicating with purpose is for whoever sets up the meeting to provide an agenda with bullets, expected time and goals for the meeting.
Daily standup meetings: A daily standup meeting is a quick check-in to cover what you did yesterday and what you’re working on today. These meetings are a helpful way to keep everyone in sync and prevent confusion.
Regular meetings: Beyond the daily standup, you’ll also need regular meetings with your respective team. The goal of these meetings is to track goals and progress. Most projects take a period of time and as a manager, you need to ensure proper progress is being made.
Regular meetings also provide a chance to voice any concerns or roadblocks in progress. While you don’t want meetings for the sake of meetings, a rhythm of collaboration keeps everyone on the same page with big picture objectives and the purpose of their work.
Use video in meetings: Finally, when you do set up your meetings video works better than phone. When you are face to face, you are fully engaged rather than simultaneously working on your computer during a call.
Video chats are also beneficial for empathy and fully understanding what your teammates are saying. Your distributed collaboration can at times feel lonely, so make the most of your meetings and have some face-to-face interaction.
Work on your writing
Good writing is also an important component of distributed collaboration. A helpful practice is to summarize meetings when they are over. You may leave a meeting thinking everyone is on the same page, but find messages were interpreted differently.
Summarizing in writing with bullet points, tasks and next steps give everyone something to refer to with no ambiguity.
Be careful with chat
Chat and live communication with teammates allow for connectedness in a distributed environment. However, it can also bring distractions.
Keep in mind that research shows it takes 23 minutes and 15 seconds to recover from each and every interruption. Constant distractions and interruptions will make you feel like a good teammate, but prevent you from getting things done.
Use chat to collaborate on your tasks, but don’t feel the need to respond immediately to all communication.
Call out great achievements
Another side effect comes along with the occasional feeling of isolation in remote work. You may be working hard and feel as though nobody notices what you’re producing. A good practice for distributed teams is to find a way to celebrate good work.
You could have a Slack channel for celebrating wins or remember to send emails with weekly highlights. Make sure your team knows their work is being noticed so they’ll continue to produce at a high level.
Don’t overcomplicate it
Overall, work is work. You and your team will thrive when you play to your strengths and get your key priorities done. Whether you are remote or in an office you need to guard your time and work with a purpose.
Communicate well and stay focused on your key priorities and you’ll be a great teammate regardless of where you or your team is located.