The times are changing, and the way we work is changing with them. More and more people are working remotely, and the trend is speeding up. But despite all of the advances in technology that made this possible, employers still struggle to stay connected to their remote workers. The tyranny of distance leaves its mark in the workplace regardless of how well our communication technologies develop. To stay ahead of the curve, you need to keep your distributed team members connected to the company, each other and the company’s goals.
The Distributed Team
A distributed team is one that is comprised partly or entirely of remote workers. Maybe they work from home or different workspaces across the nation or even across the world. By working from home, employees enjoy an increasingly wide array of benefits. Far-flung workers have the ease and convenience of working in an environment of their choice and making.
They can keep an eye on their families or take a working vacation; the options are endless. Besides the workers who like to work remotely by choice, there are also members of the workforce with physical disabilities that have an entire world opened up to them by working from home.
For employers, lower real estate needs and decreased overhead make remote workers an attractive option. Remote workers often bring their own devices to the job and don’t require costly office space. Employers usually compensate their employees for setting up their home office and buying supplies, but the time and costs are significantly reduced by just giving the employee a stipend rather than hiring someone to organize an office and procure devices and supplies.
The benefits for employers don’t stop at the purely financial, however. By hiring remotely, you can ensure you get the best, most talented candidates regardless of where they live. You don’t have to offer relocation assistance, and they get to live where they choose. No more picking from the small talent pool around your headquarters. It’s a win-win.
The Challenges and Drawbacks
Distributed teams are not without their disadvantages, though. Even though distributed team members remain connected via the internet, they don’t get the personal touch. There’s a lot of little things that go into making a team into an efficient and tight-knit group that remote workers miss out on.
Hallway conversations and impromptu meetings do a lot for encouraging cooperation and fostering new ideas, but you don’t get that from behind a computer screen. As a remote employee, you also rarely have enough opportunities to learn the company’s “tribal knowledge” which is already hard enough to capture as it is. This is a kind of knowledge that you can’t find in a manual or training session. It’s passed on from veteran to new hire through conversation or by example, or new employees simply learn by observation. Again, computer screens have proven to be barriers to this.
Employees aren’t the only one with challenges stemming from having a distributed team. Employers and managers often find themselves unable to keep tabs on their workers as effectively as if they were in the same building. On top of that, it’s difficult for managers to know when their team members are confused, lost or working on the wrong thing. Some things just can’t be gleaned from an email.
Using Technology to Bridge the Gaps
Fortunately for remote workers and managers, the tech industry has risen to the challenge of keeping distributed teams connected. Digital software and services such as Slack or Trello allow team members to be transparent about their work. While using these services, everyone will know who is working on what and when. The programs also offer chat functions with fun additions like GIFs or emojis to foster socialization.
Having specialized technology is helpful, but the way you use these tools are just as important. As a remote worker or manager, you should use the chat functions liberally, not only for special occasions or meetings. Check-ins, socializing, collaborating or even gossiping can help turn a collection of workers into a team that knows and relies on each other.
Making a Business Less Like a Business
It’s a widely accepted business strategy to nurture your employees and foster an almost familial bond between them to build morale and loyalty. Employees and employers alike will work harder for a place and people that they care about. This advice is good for any company but absolutely crucial for distributed teams.
Some companies have problems with employees being too friendly, familiar or casual in the workplace, but distributed teams have the opposite problem. Other teammates and managers can often appear to be no more than a name and a small profile picture to a remote worker. It’s hard to connect with a disembodied voice that you only speak to when there’s work to be done. You’ll have to do everything you can to ensure that your employees or your co-workers see you as a human.
The best way to connect with your co-workers remotely is to be “real” with them. Become a person to them by building rapport as fast as you can. Offer personal details, desires, goals or interests to humanize yourself. Instead of being the remote IT person, be the one on the team that likes to go fishing and has two awesome dogs. Project your persona onto others to help them “get” you. You don’t have to be too personal if you don’t want to, try and connect over parts of the job you love or hate and share work strategies.
Communication is key in a distributed team. You can’t pop into an office to see what’s happening or ask a quick question and your meetings take place in a less than ideal environment. Better communication involves being clear and concise so that you can get everything across that you need to even if it’s a brief message or email.
When it comes to meetings, make sure everyone has the opportunities they need. As a worker, try to chime in as much as you can. This behavior is useful for remote workers in general, as you should get ahead of communication problems by letting everyone know what you are up to even if they don’t ask. Too much information is not nearly as bad as not enough in this case.
As a leader, give everyone a chance to speak and contribute in a meeting; it’s difficult to interject over a voice call or video chat so schedule in time for input from everyone. Ensure that all team members have access to all the materials that they require before heading into a meeting. Trying to work things out digitally is much more time consuming than running back to your office for a forgotten chart.
However, what you say is also as important as how you say it. Instead of just rattling off facts and instructions, inject your humanity into your communications. Share your wins and losses and give your opinion where it’s appropriate. If a teammate does a great job, let them know and put genuine enthusiasm into your communications, even if they are just instant messages. Be someone that others can talk to about anything.
Changing Your Behavior
The most important thing you can do to keep your distributed team together is to change the way you do business. The things we talked about above are a good start, but you will also require fundamental shifts in paradigms and attitude.
Your company is no longer just the office you work at. Your team isn’t only the people you see every day. A common mistake that employers make when going remote is doing things the same way they did before they started hiring remote workers. They treat their physical employees as the “main” employees, and the remote hires as secondary or periphery workers. They believe the “real” work happens in the office while you can shoot off a task to a remote worker when you need to.
This way of thinking sow’s division in the workforce, lowers morale and tanks employee loyalty. If you start treating remote workers like second-class employees, they will begin to act like them. You’ll experience sub-par work and a high turnover rate from employees who don’t feel valued or connected to the company as a whole. Treat every employee equally, and ensure that your central office workers do the same. Even the inclusion of just one remote employee calls for a dramatic shift in how the company views its workforce and operating procedures.
It’s Worth the Effort
All of this may seem like a lot of work, and it is. But leading or being part of a distributed team has too many benefits to ignore and if companies don’t adapt, they will get left behind. The trick is to keep everyone on the team connected regardless of location and making sure they know that there are people on the other end of those computers.
By Dakota Findley, who has been published on a wide ranging spectrum of respected sites. His writing inspirations are drawn from the areas of saving/making money, goal setting, technology, investments and beyond.