On teams working across borders

This picture was taken during one of many visits to Barcelona Airport. Credit: Martin ‘Martze’ W.

It’s around 9:58 AM when I usually dial in for our daily standup. A bit early to the meeting, I’m welcomed by a computer message:

“YOU’RE THE ONLY CALL IN THIS CONFERENCE.”

In the following two minutes my teammates will tune in from Barcelona, Madrid, and the occasional family vacation home. For 15 minutes, updates and discussions take place. Then, standup is over and the conference room quickly turns quiet again. I am by myself. And if I wait too long the voice from earlier makes sure to remind me of that.

This is just one example about how working in remote teams is special — there is a cut of at the end of each meeting that sends you back into isolation. No time for catch up talks or informal meeting recaps. At first, the uncertainty around not always knowing what’s going on made me uneasy. As a product manager, I am responsible for delivering value to our customers and need (some) confidence that the team is on the right path to achieve this.

After many video conferences in multiple remote teams, I know today that these teams can be at least as effective as on-site teams. However, it is important to overcome challenges that arise from a distributed team setup. For this, I consider the following three areas to be fundamental:

  • People: The way team culture is created and how members communicate with each other.
  • Process: The practices that allow the team to work together, ensuring continuous exchange, transparency and alignment.
  • Purpose: A setup in which teams, and its members, develop a sense of ownership for what they are working on.

Of course, these areas are relevant for all teams, regardless of being remote or not. The more distributed a team, the more important they become though.

People > Pixels

In remote teams, trust and cooperation amongst the team members is pivotal to its success. Companies establish remote teams to help them solve their most pressing challenges. These challenges, like launching new products and developing new technologies, cannot be solved by a single person; they require a group of people with expertise in various areas. Companies are struggling to find these groups near their headquarters and start to look elsewhere. Without team spirit, the tough problem-solving remote supergroups which companies then cast together, will fail harder than Brazil’s elite football team in the last World Cups.

In 2016, as part of a meta-analysis on studies that looked at over 1.850 teams, researchers underlined the importance of trust and its positive impact on remote teams’ effectiveness.

Establishing trust

Building a relationship with your teammates is difficult when they are not available for a casual “How was your weekend?” chat or open up to you over a bad cup of office coffee (shared misery is a good ice breaker). I was also facing this challenge when I started in a new team, as I would see my remote teammates only for work related meetings. There was not much bonding going on, when work related topics were tackled head on. When you are starting out in a new team it helps to pause for a bit with task related thinking to acknowledge and learn about your new colleagues. If you cannot ask them how their weekend was on a Monday morning, make it a habit to do it in the first meeting you have with them.

Likewise, keep in mind that if people only perceive you in meetings, they do not get a strong sense of who you are as a person. And why should you trust someone that you don’t know? Sharing about your life and passions helps the team to get to know you. And be aware that a high level of familiarity is the basis for trust in many countries which makes it even more important when working in multi-national teams.

There are several concrete measures that we took to build up trust and connections in the team: We established an off-topic chat room — our modern day interpretation of the water cooler . The off-topic chat room is the place where all the memes, movie recommendations and holiday pictures go. Just because of its existence the channel helped to facilitate our non-work related exchange. Also, it does not flood our other communication channels in which you never quite know if its the right time for a cat video.

All the digital mingling, still has nothing on connecting face-to-face. That is why we do all our calls through video. Seeing your team members adds to the intimacy significantly. Also, we make sure to regularly see each other in person. This physical proximity further establishes familiarity, supports team building but also makes some difficult discussions easier.

Even with the biggest screens and the best cameras, talking through screens takes practice and needs guidelines

Talking to screens

In remote teams the majority of the communication is done digitally. It’s a big challenge to still achieve a good, natural level of communication between team members.

I made it a routine to see the team every six weeks and bring a list of things that I want to talk about during my stay. Even with large video screens some conversations are better held face-to-face. Especially, when there is a high level of interaction, discussion or emotions involved. However, you often don’t have the luxury to wait with a topic until the next in-person visit comes around. Teams need to establish solid remote communication practices to also function when talking to each other through screens. Good remote communication allows a team to:

  • grow closer together and create a bond between team members.
  • be aware of sources of miscommunication and prevent them.
  • create solutions in collaboration and leverage the knowledge of the whole group; also in ad hoc situations.

Our team established soft communication rules to guide us towards using the appropriate communication channel to achieve the above.

Guidelines for picking a communication channel; Credits: webcam by Vectors Market, laptop by Martin Lebreton, conference room by Creative Mahira, all from the Noun Project

Chat is used to send updates to the whole team and for questions that need a quick response. As soon as there is a discussion arising we call each other to prevent misunderstanding and to improve the efficiency of our conversation. To better detect the verbal and non-verbal clues of the others, we always do video chats. A beneficial side-effect to team building is that team members get to know how parts of your home look like; which again can help with building rapport — think of it as the softened, remote-friendly version of inviting your coworkers over for dinner.

Still, interaction and cooperation is difficult when everyone is calling in from different places. We started using a digital whiteboard to make ideas and concepts visible and to build up on them. This gives visual aid where talking alone would lead to confusion. We have good experiences with using RealtimeBoard for these exercises, though there are many other whiteboarding tools that you can use for this purpose.

Three principles for remote communication

For my remote communication, I try to stick to these three principles:

  • Too much > Too little: Others do not see what you are doing all day. To not fly under the radar, it’s important to share your work progress and activities with others. This can be as small as letting the team know that you are heading out for lunch and won’t be available for the next hour. Be aware that these updates do not need to trigger a response. They are for making sure everyone knows what’s going on; they are not for collecting Likes — this is what Instagram is for. Also, rather double check and clarify than just assume something is understood. As renowned designer and remote worker Tobias van Schneider puts it: “Remove assumptions. Over-communicate and be proactive about it.”
  • Direct > Correct: Almost no teams that I have worked in had native English speakers in it. Still, English became our ‘Lingua Franca’, the language we use every day to communicate. And if you are communicating in a foreign language you will make mistakes. The consequence should not be that you try extra hard to speak and write flawlessly. Putting safeguards on your thoughts to get your grammar right is toxic to joined collaboration and idea generation. It’s okay to not sound like Rosetta Stone.
  • Record > Remember: One of the benefits of working remotely is that team members can work without distractions at whatever time they feel most productive. However, this productivity gain is lost if they do not have all the information to continue with their work. In a virtual office you don’t have the luxury of asking around casually. If you reach out to someone remotely you will also pull them out of their focus. You don’t have the luxury of checking across the table to get help from someone. To reduce this need for clarification we put effort into documenting (e.g. decisions, specifications, earlier work on a topic). When someone is stuck, there is a good chance that there is information available and focus is not lost.
My remote communication principles

Even the teams with the best culture and strongest communication skills will face challenges when working together on complicated tasks. I thus found it helpful to have routines that help with achieving the following:

  • Continuous exchange: No flying under the radar.
  • Early problem discovery: Figuring out together what will be difficult.
  • Visible Progress: Transparency for the whole team about what is worked on and if the project is on track.
  • Alignment: Making sure the team is committed to and understands decisions about next steps and the team goals .

Regardless of the hype around Scrum, I found its concrete, prescriptive routines to be a very helpful framework for achieving the above. Daily Standups offer a continuous exchange every morning. Refinements and estimations are an opportunity to discover critical questions early. The Scrumboard allows everyone to see the current process in real-time. Plannings, reviews and all the aforementioned routines are great to continuously align on why something is important and how to work on it. Lastly, it is difficult to spot if a team member is annoyed by something when you only see them during a couple of meetings. This makes team retrospectives particularly important for remote setups. Retrospectives are an opportunity for teams to discover lurking frustration before they turn into something worse.

Establishing routines is an effective management tool that can help remote teams to work together without direct supervision. The positive impact that structure and processes have on remote teams is also supported by researchers.

In virtual teams, the stability and reduction of ambiguity provided by structural supports may compensate for the turbulence and unpredictability that characterizes virtual teamwork. Leading Virtual Teams by Julia E. Hoch and Steve W. Kozlowski

Purpose and the power to make decisions

Teams with a strong team culture and established routines are well prepared to handle the challenges of remote work. Still, this will not be enough to keep a bunch of smart individuals from all over the world motivated and engaged. A remote team needs purpose — an overarching goal and the autonomy to achieve this goal on its own.

This purpose is nothing the team can assign to themselves. It needs a paradigm shift in the organization. Responsibilities and trust must be passed down from management into the teams. A tough stretch for organization that not every company will be willing to do. Remote work expert Jason Fried brings this to the point with this example of a common manager objection for working outside the office walls:

“If I can’t see them, how do I know they’re working?” — from Remote by Jason Fried

Once purpose and trust is given to a team, it can truly thrive to fullest potential in its distributed setup:

  • Decisions can be made quickly and be based on what helps to achieve the overarching goal. Lengthy coordination with headquarter management about the smallest changes can be prevented thanks to this autonomy.
  • There is flexibility in how to achieve the goal. The team can decide which way to go and change plans if an opportunity opens due to market conditions or new insights.
  • Sense of ownership is developed. Even if the team sits far away from the headquarters, they know that whatever they are working on contributes to the company strategy and bottom line. For engineers who write thousands of lines of code for a new feature, it is a powerful motivation to know that this work makes an impact; that they make an impact.

A study of 35 remote sales and support teams attests that autonomy and self-management can enhance the performance of remote teams. Other scholars also mention the positive effect on team morale and trust.

“Team self-management and empowerment, in this context, has been shown to enhance virtual team performance”. Leading Virtual Teams by Julia E. Hoch and Steve W. Kozlowski

Be aware that not every company culture is set up to give purpose to remote teams. Also, the bigger and entangled an organization becomes, the more difficult it becomes to provide true autonomy to the teams. So before you join one you should make sure that they are fully enabled to work in this distributed setup.

Doing remote work alone isn’t even remotely possible

When I started as a product manager in remote teams, I was eager to make the setup work. Deep analyses, detailed specs, designated remote best practices — I had it all prepared. Today, I know that this is not enough. It’s not about my work, but about how the whole team works together.

Like the problems the remote teams are up to solve, the remote setup cannot be established by one person. It’s established by the focus on people and the trust between them, by having established routines that facilitate day-to-day work, and through a goal and the ownership to achieve it. Ultimately, having this solid setup makes the fears and uncertainty around remote teams go away. It even makes me feel less isolated in an empty virtual meeting room in the morning.



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