If you are a remote member of a virtual team, you’re responsible for doing the role that you have been contracted for — maybe that is writing, design, programming, or something else. But for your virtual team to flourish, you need to take on other roles as well. In interviewing members of distributed teams for Wide Teams, I’ve found that the teams that thrive are composed of individuals who go above and beyond merely “doing their job,” and take the initiative to put on different hats as needed.
Even if your team has a designated team lead or project manager, they may be focused on coordinating work and delivering value to the client rather than on streamlining your remote collaboration. If you see a deficiency in the team’s communication or workflow, don’t wait around for someone else to see the problem and fix it — take the initiative and experiment with solutions until the issue is addressed.
This could mean:
- Noting that the team isn’t talking often enough, and responding by setting up a Campfire account and inviting all of the team members to it.
- Detecting when a team member is flailing and offering to screenshare with them and work through the problem together.
- Organizing a virtual after-hours Halo game to build team spirit and blow off some steam.
You might be whiz with tools like Google Wave, Skype and screensharing. But others on the team may not be as adept at using remote collaboration tools. This is especially true if you are the only remote member your team. As a remote worker, part of your job is helping your coworkers get up to speed on the tools and practices that make remote work possible.
If one of your teammates balks at your invitation to use a tool like Skype or seems to be having difficulty with it, don’t let it frustrate you. Instead, put on your Trainer hat and offer to show them the ropes. Remember too that tools are evolving all the time, and they may have bad experiences from an earlier, buggier version of the tool you are trying to use. For instance, I’ve had teams be pleasantly shocked to discover that Skype video chat and screensharing actually work quite well these days.
Unless your team is very large, chances are you don’t have a person dedicated to ironing out technical difficulties. As a remote team member, it behooves you to be acquainted with the various tools that exist for teleconferencing and remote collaboration. Wearing your Technician hat, you can facilitate team meetings in several ways, including:
- Spend some time test-driving new collaboration tools (teleconferencing, screen-sharing, whiteboard, etc.) before using the tools in a meeting.
- A lot can go wrong even with a “simple” group Skype call. “Arrive” at team virtual meetings ten minutes early, and use the time to do a sound check and verify that, at least on your end, there aren’t any issues that might otherwise delay the meeting.
It’s easy to become invisible when participating in a distributed team. All you have to do is fail to speak up. It’s especially easy to fall into this trap if you are the only remote member of the team. It’s your job to avoid this scenario by making sure the rest of the team is aware of your presence.
- Do you have a team chat room? Make it a goal to update the room regularly with what you are doing.
- Keep a work log and email daily summaries of what you did, what you learned, and what held you up each day to the rest of the team.
- Insist on making at least one call a day a video conference, in order to get that all-important face time with the rest of the team.
In collocated teams it’s usually pretty easy to get a feel for the “pulse” of the project by direct osmosis. In a distributed team, keeping tabs on who is doing what, upcoming deadlines, client requests, etc. requires conscious vigilance and judicious use of technology. You act a bit like a stock market analyst, monitoring market indicators and analyzing them for trends.
One technique I like to use is to collect the RSS feeds exposed by all of the collaboration tools used in the project and subscribe to all of them in an RSS reader. So if the team is using a bug tracker, a revision control system, and a project organization tool like Basecamp, I’ll subscribe to the RSS feeds for all three. Then when I’m checking my email in the morning, I can also check my RSS reader to get an overview of what’s new in the project. I’ll also make sure I’m subscribed to the Twitter feeds for everyone on the team.
Communication is the chief challenge of the distributed team. An essential skill for a team member is the ability to absorb information and then restate it in order to spread knowledge and verify that he or she is on the same page as everyone else. It’s like being a journalist in the habit of taking notes about everything you learn or do, and then sharing it with the rest of the team. Some examples:
- One manager I spoke to likes to start the day by sending out a brief “state of the project” email to the whole team to make sure they are all on the same page.
- If you have a one-on-one conversation with the client, capture any new information gleaned from the meeting and immediately share it with the rest of the team.
- When concluding a meeting, summarize and restate your understanding of the outcome of that meeting so that the other team members can confirm that it echoes their understanding as well.
Virtual teams tend not to develop their own character and spirit naturally, the way collocated teams do. You can’t go out for beers with your virtual team. It takes intentional effort to build a distributed team’s culture and identity.
Don’t wait for somebody else to motivate you. Start celebrating team victories, and egging your coworkers on to greater and greater excellence today! Some concrete steps you could take are:
- Invite the team to a make a virtual group photo.
- Schedule time to chat with your teammates one-on-one, not to work through a problem, but just to check in, see how they are doing, and let them know you value the work they do.
- If you are a well-oiled team, crossing off tasks like clockwork, it can be easy to take that productivity for granted. Make a point of saying “nice work!” next time one of your coworkers reports a job finished.
Members of successful dispersed teams do whatever it takes to facilitate the team’s growth, even if it isn’t part of their job description. What hats do you wear in your project?
Related GigaOM Pro content (sub. req.): Are You Empowering Your Mobile Workforce?
Avdi Grimm is the creator of Wide Teams, a blog and podcast for geographically dispersed organizations. As a freelance software developer and remote team facilitator, he works with distributed software teams from his home near York, Pennsylvania. He also organizes a local coworking group for fellow office-optional professionals. When he’s not writing about dispersed teams he blogs about programming at Virtuous Code. He loves the fact that working remotely enables him to spend more time with his wife and four children.