How To Build Connections Within Distributed Teams

The days of every member of a team working side-by-side are long gone for many modern organizations. With the prevalence of remote work, geographically-separated offices, mergers and acquisitions, increased business travel, and a growing gig economy, more employees and managers are facing the challenge of collaborating with co-workers from afar. While distributed teams may benefit from a broader range of skills and expertise than their centralized competitors, they often need to find new ways to move in the same direction, regardless of location or timezone.

Consider these tips to make sure your distributed teams work together seamlessly:

Set Expectations

Questions that seem obvious when a team is in the same room quickly become complicated when multiple members of your team work in different locations. It’s important to set expectations with your co-workers early to avoid confusion and create cultural norms for the team. What will normal working hours be, keeping multiple time zones in mind? How often will the team meet as a group, and how will that time be spent? How often should employees check in with their managers?  “It’s crucial to lay down some goals and expectations for each employee and ensure that those expectations are being met. Try to toe the line though between micromanaging and merely communicating those desires and expectations,” suggests Monica Zent for Entrepreneur

Prioritize as a Team, and Individually

When priorities are set based on what’s important to one group or a single objective, it can often leave colleagues torn between meeting the expectations of the people in their location or the expectations of their global working group. To avoid this issue, try to set time aside to meet as a team to discuss priorities by region, role, and level of expertise. Setting goals for your team at a high level can help determine your overall objectives, and setting individual priorities will help your team members stay focused on the tasks and objectives for which they’re directly responsible.

Communicate Regularly

Communication can easily fall off the map for distributed teams. It can sometimes seem like an unnecessary extra step to tell people what you’re working on, or why it’s working, when you’d rather just use that time to get more done. However, without regular communication, it’s easy for teams to forget that they’re working toward a common purpose, with multiple moving parts operating at once. For leaders, consider sending a weekly communication summarizing the team’s progress in a given week, or talk about team priorities first thing on Monday mornings. For individual contributors, aim to connect with your small team or a counterpart weekly via phone, chat, or email to help stay aligned and focused on the right tasks.

Check In Often

The Harvard Business Review’s Guide to Performance Management suggests helping managers and employees stay in close contact can detect early signs of frustration and burnout. The guide notes “Since you don’t usually get the opportunity to pick up visual cues or have impromptu conversations with remote employees, make an extra effort to see how they’re doing. Stay alert for signs of burnout by checking in regularly.” Checking in with distributed teammates can help answer questions like “Are there any roadblocks preventing you from reaching your objectives?” or “Are there things going on in your personal life worth celebrating, or anything that may interrupt your work for the next few weeks?” Leaders should aim to touch base with direct reports daily, even if it’s just a short call, chat conversation, email, or text message exchange.

Get the Technology Right

“If you want to ditch your own physical environment for daily teamwork, the only way to make this doable is to use the right technology,” writes Külli Koort for Fast Company. For distributed teams, it can be especially frustrating to wait for answers or input to move forward with projects. Make sure you have the right technology in place to help everyone understand what needs to be done, who will be working on which tasks, and what skills each team member brings to the table. Leaders of distributed teams would also benefit from technology that helps them keep track of important work milestones, anniversaries, available skills, career development goals, and other important details that are often hard to track without regular in-person interaction.

Stay Flexible

It's important for distributed teams to develop processes and create best practices to improve outcomes. At the same time, distributed teams often require a nuanced approach to executing similar tasks in varying locations.  What works in one location may not work in another due to differences in local norms, legal requirements, language differences, and available bandwidth. Rigid processes that lack room for suggestion or improvement may prove frustrating for employees in distant offices who can’t give input or offer suggestions. A one-size-fits all approach might work well for one team, but leave others feeling frustrated and excluded. Make sure to create open channels for feedback, and leave room for your distributed team members to use their best judgement when a process becomes overly cumbersome for their unique situation.

Distributed teams face unique challenges to achieving their common goals. If you’re not always able to be in the same room as your co-workers, it can be difficult to communicate, collaborate, and form the kinds of personal connections that make work more fulfilling. However, with the right tools, leadership, and commitment to the success of the organization, distributed teams can turn their disparate locations into a major advantage over their more centralized competitors.  

For more tips on engaging your workforce, no matter where they are, check out Structural’s Employee Success Playbook, where we outline ways to drive business outcomes by creating the right environments for people to do their best work.

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