The secret of successful Distributed Teams lies hidden between the lines

First let’s agree on one thing: Throughout the text I’ll be using virtual, remote and distributed as terms of exactly equal meaning. I’m saying this because we’ve been attaching various emotional, positive or negative tags to these terms and I’d like you to understand them just like me as neutral.

Ok. It’s time. Let’s go!

Organizations that get it right know that virtual teams and co-located teams are as different as appleas and oranges. But unfortunately, too many organizations have yet to catch on to this critical truth. — “Virtual Team Success: A practical Guide for Working and Leading from a Distance”

Distributed teams have been around for years. Everyone has heard of them, some of us early adopters have even worked on them. The funny part is when you ask people if virtual teams are any good, there’s going to be discord in their opinions. Majority will have no opinion maybe with a slightly negative bias, which is fair as most businesses still haven’t employed working remotely. Then there’s going to be a large number of people seemingly disillusioned and negative about full-time remote work. An ideal example to check are : IBM or these guys) . Finally you can find folks who’ll admit getting on a distributed team has been one of their best life changing choices, that the job is great, people are awesome and they themselves super productive and happy. Great examples here are : ZapierAutomattic and 37 Signals.

Go ahead and google up “why remote teams fail”. You’ll get at least a dozen of top positioned articles cataloguing what you need to get right for remote to work : communication, processes, purpose, values amongst many others. Their good, universal suggestions, but how is “communicate better” different from an usual remark you’d give to a co-located team? That’s the problem. And if our brain is not surprised or excited about what we’re reading because it’s the same generic thing we’ve seen before, we won’t be able to create that first entry in our to-do list. We’ll more likely to ignore and forget.

I’ve seen a lot of struggling virtual teams. And in retrospective the most significant blocker is always the same : leaders thinking that co-located teams are no different than distributed ones and if you apply the same management, organisational and administrative practices perhaps mixing in a few catchy apps — they’ll do fine especially the HPEs (Or high performing employees). They’ll do fine, they’ll cope, they’ll figure it out together.

In other words people end up thinking, that if you do daily Skype standups, use google docs for collaboration and slack for comms — your virtual kingdom will thrive. In the end companies move people to a distributed model or launch distributed companies and that doesn’t work because they didn’t go that extra mile to properly plan it. And it not only won’t work. In extreme cases this lack of planning can pull your entire business down.

The future is largely remote

Nowadays employers are cutting costs like never before. More and more, we hear of robots to replace humans in yet another industry and the moment that starts to happen doesn’t seem very distant. Among business expenses office cost is usually high on the list — a huge overhead that amounts to hundreds of thousands of dollars annually. Here’s a list based on US office space prices:

source: MarketWatch

Hence it’s not surprising anymore that more than 37% of American white collars already work remotely. And I’m not even talking about self-employed digital nomad folk sipping on margaritas enjoying azure water and sun. These are part or full-time remote workers that are often enjoying work away from their office during most of the work week or show up in there occasionally just to give around fives and do some water-cooler chit-chat. So remote is slowly starting to be the new standard.

Whenever there’s a talk of work trends, in the background you’ll often hear of Millennials. That’s because more than 50% of world’s workforce is already born between 1980 and 1995. Our (as I see myself as a fairly typical Millennial) perception of work is very different from the one of our parents and grandparents. We value purpose and meaning in what we do and hardly agree to a job that just pays bills. We need to do what we love and because we’re Knowledge Workers, we often need to go from 0 to 1 employing creativity, experience, subject matter expertise and often act on intuition. In other words what we do is hardly scalable. Thanks to Millennials we’re slowly waking up from the 9 to 5 routine of the past and start moving towards integrating work and life. This new approach is becoming the new trend as the term work-life balance gets redefined.

Running away from noisy offices a lot of people just thrive when working remotely. They’re more creative, less distracted, enjoy their family lives to a higher, more fulfilling extent. They travel across continents to live life still keeping their job under control. While remote work is indeed not for everyone, most people I ask admit, they’d love to try it.

I believe that’s where the road leads to. Inevitably cutting overhead costs by the business will marry the concept of work from anywhere and that’s what we’ll see more and more in the not so distant future. That’s why we need to learn running remote teams efficiently now.

Apples and Oranges

Distributed teams are different and these differences are often hidden away between the lines. Here, let me repeat, so that the statement sticks: Distributed teams do require special treatment. If you start your distributed team with that pre-cognition, you’ll most likely succeed in reaping most if not all the benefits of remote work. Higher employee engagement, to name one, and more. I will try to cover the dissimilarities I’ve identified in this series of articles, but today I’ll focus on the first two fundamental team dynamics that just don’t work the same on remote teams.

Forging relationships

First, in the office we’re enjoying a lot of face time. I agree, sometimes a common open space tends to be distracting but there are benefits to working together. The biggest by far are emotion based relationships. What people call teamwork is based on human’s natural affinity towards another human being. We’re built in a way that lets these emotions transcend from one person to the other and at the same time can be best interpreted, when we’re in a physical contact. Relationships are key because they build trust (genuine, not only task-based trust), the sense of common purpose or at least a notion of “we’re in this together”, but there’s something more to it. By getting closer emotionally we’re gaining psychological safety.According to research Google did under the name *Project Aristotle* that’s number one prerequisite to effective teamwork.

Sharing common space is a rare commodity on remote teams. Face to Face contact is reserved to offline retreats and even that isn’t given for some of the teams. As a consequence, binding relationships is much harder and takes more time. It takes longer for team members to start trusting one another and much longer to reach the state of psychological safety. And without these it’s impossible to reach optimal conditions for successful collaboration and value output.

Even tools like Sqwiggle, that used to display your team mates’ webcam shots in a 10 minute intervals can’t make up for that precious moment of being in the same time and space. As much as having video calls each day will help build team rapport, it won’t substitute for physical co-existence that happens in the office space.

The need for feedback

Other fundamental difference that sets remote teams apart are feedback loops. To make the story short — it’s rude in a face-to-face setting not to provide any feedback during conversation. Imagine someone asking you how your day’s been. You’d at least respond by a smile or an eye-roll if things have been rough. Moreover most of the time that conversation wasn’t planned — it was coincidental and in a way natural. Coincidental feedback does not occur on remote teams though. That’s because all video calls are defined in your calendar and are all created for a specific business purpose. Remote collaboration is also more asynchronous so the explicit need for feedback is called for much less frequently.

Sensory deprivation in psychology is a phenomenon that happens to someone locked up in a pitch dark, soundproof room. People usually start hearing voices and eventually go paranoid. I don’t even want to know how science learned that and who were the poor subjects in this experiment. By being deprived of any environmental response — either auditory or visual they start to get overwhelmed by pre-conceptions, fears and negative thoughts. I hope, you’re making the link already.

Yes — the same would easily happen on a distributed team. By not getting frequent feedback from team mates, you would start imagining they’re slacking off or in extreme cases — have bad intentions towards you and your business. Drawing your own parallel universes here can easily kill any collaboration or creativity not to mention it might heavily damage psychological safety I hinted at a few paragraphs earlier.

Prescription for special treatment

There’s no miraculous pill when it comes to fragile team dynamics, but a few practices can help build up both relations and a healthy, frequent feedback culture on a freshly started distributed team. I tried these in matured teams too and it’s never too late to start doing things right. As usual I will not make a list that will leave you struggling to decide where to start. I’ll name just 3 practices in this article.

Lightning rounds

This is possibly the most effective practice that can give a huge boost to any team’s engagement and morale. Do you remember, when I mentioned Google’s *Project Aristotle*? Well the guys there while researching 151 different teams found out, that democratising talk time so all team members have their individual time to speak up is a unique building block of the most successful teams.

Lightning rounds are one of many brilliant ideas brought to us by the Agile community. Truth is, many of Agile rituals are applicable to any team because what they do is simply employ relationship building and feedback loops. And the positive effects of these tools are not limited to the IT folk.

Anyway, the practice goes as follows:

Each team member has their 2 minutes to speak about what they have been doing, what they’re up to and what’s blocking them. That’s it.

Arranging the meetings this way needs you to apply timebox to each member’s talk-time so they don’t run into discussions with other team members. But it’s worth it. What you’ll observe when everyone got used to the practice is how skilfully people combine work related themes, their authentic selves and personal emotions towards others. If you’re persistent on keeping lightning rounds, you’ll sense an invisible thread that starts to form between team members as well as a collective team spirit. Yes they both translate into engagement and in the end — better results.

Collective decision making

How do you agree on things when in an office meeting room? Usually one person asks a question and seeks confirmation or denial which usually come as a verbal response or at least body language providing a quick hint to what the reaction is.
It’s relatively easy for those in favor to stand up and for those against to verablize their objection. Yet it doesn’t work very well in a video call with people who have close to none face-time. What I’ve seen multiple times on remote video calls is that one person (usually manager) makes a proposal and one, rarely two people in the call give a brief answer that is then taken by the proponent for an unanimous “in favour”. What if others didn’t speak up because they got triggered by the proposal itself and are trying to control their emotions? You can never be sure in that case if the team has fully committed to the decision being made.

I believe decision making on more substantial matters should be done using clear signs, everyone should participate in the process and results remain visible. I’m sending a wink towards such great emerging methodologies as Sociocracy 3.0 and Teal Organisations, as they employ very mature yet simple ways to take group decisions. For our video calls though let’s make sure that:

  • when a question is asked all team members participate in decision
  • everyone is using hand signs for In favour, Pass and against.

The hardest part is for the team to break a barrier of “everyone’s a talking head” and start using hand signs. It’s also important that the person who makes the proposal seeks everyone’s participation and not jump to premature conclusions.

What you definitely don’t want to miss after everyone has voted is a open discussion. It’s likely that there is a sole “against” vote on the team so it helps to discuss that vote to improve mutual understanding and foster psychological safety. After all she could perhaps feel like a traitor if everyone else voted In favour, though in well-communicated teams that’s hardly the case.

Peer feedback

Let the team start doing this highly effective practice I first heard of through Automattic’s blog. Automattic are the guys behind WordPress — THE open source blogging platform. The practice itself is called “Start, Stop, Continue” and its a simple regular peer feedback: Once in a quarter or so people send each other a three-line email that looks something like this:

Hey Jerry
Here’s my quarterly SSC. Feel free to ping me when you need me to better explain the “hairy” one 🙂
Start — I think it would be great if you got more involved in one of my key accounts.
Stop — I really get pissed off when you keep the shades down on sunny days. I’m a sungazer 🙂 . Maybe we could switch seats if you mind the sunrays?
Continue — Your weekly team update is a masterpiece. Everyone is on their toes to get that mail in their inboxes. You rule dude!
Cheers!

See. Not that difficult. But for sure authentic. The beauty of this practice is in reciprocity. Because everyone must send everyone else a 3-liner, no one is shielded from Stop. On the other hand Start and Continue will nicely contribute to fostering culture of praise that feeds everyone’s need for appreciation.

Your turn

I understand the ideas I laid out above are in the domain by many called “soft” (…weak?) and all the hardcore executives that blossom with excel pivot tables will not immediately run to try them. I believe though, what we call soft, emotional and right-brain holds the true key to successful, happy teams that deliver on results. Harvard Business Review and many public figures including Dan Pink and Simon Sinek have been talking about importance of trust and participation for years. Yet they were mostly addressing co-located teams. For distributed teams supporting relationship building and proper feedback culture can work miracles as these core dynamics are fundamental in building all the other blocks, good communication patterns included.

That’s why when you are about to lead or help a remote team organise, start by following these three steps:

  • acknowledge that remote needs special treatment
  • focus your best on facilitating relationships and feedback culture. Teach that to others.
  • employ at least one of the techniques I mentioned above. I recommend lightning rounds as they’re very easy to start with.