When geography divides a team conflicts can occur along the borders. The world can become us and them and there can be hostile feelings towards people in other parts of the organisation. The number of teams who are not working most of the time in the same place is growing rapidly, with flexible working and national and global marketplaces. Dispersed teams are becoming the norm and it is creating a huge challenge in communications.
Molehills can become mountains very quickly in dispersed work situations. In managing across dispersed team never sit and wait for things to work out as they are unlikely to. And never allow dispersed teams to be taken by surprise. Regular check-ins and updates are essential to keep the team working smoothly and to avoid firefighting.
Teams need to be results focused with clear deliverables. Hold regular review meetings to discuss these deliverables both individually and as a team. Use technology to support dispersed working. Whilst you do not have to adopt every tool invented, all the team should have the same tools which are the most effective for their communication.
Face to face meetings are still essential. Bring the team together at regular intervals. Holding meetings at the main office or at the office of the largest sub group can give latent messages as to who is at the top of the hierarchy. This can undermine the spirit of collaboration. Rotate the meetings so every site has an opportunity to host the meeting or choose a neutral site so everyone travels.
The names of different sites can convey status messages and contribute to poor communication. For example headquarters head office area office home office remote site all convey status messages. Try to be neutral and describe sites in geographical terms such as building names or towns etc.
Informal time together is essential. In offices where everyone is together informal conversations happen in the kitchen, along the hallway. These are essential for building relationships and often catalysts for new ideas. During meetings always allow plenty of unstructured time to allow remote team members to catch up socially.
If urgent meetings are required and not everyone can be in the meeting room use virtual meetings- video conferencing or conference calls. These are not good for informal chats; however they are very useful for decision making and updates or review sessions.
Formal communication practices will be needed to ensure that there is regular transfer of knowledge and information across the group. The team should collectively decide how best to keep everyone informed and then stick to it.
Our experience of high performing virtual teams is that they have the following characteristics
- Focussed on the customer (internal and external)
- Clear purpose and specific goals both collectively and individually
- Everyones role responsibilities and deliverables understood by all
- Explicit procedures for regular information flow.
- Continuous learning through regular reviews
Most of these practices are essential for face to face teams. It is important to remember that in dispersed working the difficulties caused by their absence is magnified.