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Avoiding Conflicts Within a Teleworking Team

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It’s hard work to set up and supervise a teleworking team for some projects.  In the web content service I run, I need to gather work-from-home writers together and help them work as a team.  This is especially important for projects that require group cooperation and interaction, such as an ebook or a multi-authored blog.

One of the advantages of teleworking is that there’s less opportunities for workplace gossip and personality clashes.  Most teams approach their communications very matter-of-factly.  But I find that this isn’t always the case, especially when members each have very different working styles.

When managing a team of very different people all over the globe, what can you do to keep the team, and the work, from imploding?

All expectations should be out on the table. Most conflict comes from someone’s expectations not being met.  When someone new joins the team, the project manager or the person in charge should ask them what their expectations are.  The new members should also be told what’s expected of them.  Doing this may seem corny, but it’s the only way to assure that everyone is signing up to be on the same team, working through the same processes.

Documented accountability. If the team is unclear about the deliverables that are due  and who is responsible for them, that’s a recipe for disaster.  Each person on the team should have a very defined role from the beginning – and this should be written down, along with due dates, for everyone to see.

It’s relatively easy to document everything if you’re using collaboration software or a wiki to work with your team. Basecamp from 37signals is such an example, as it allows users to schedule project milestones and see who’s responsible for them.

Communication training. Communication is the most essential factor to the success of an online team.  It’s not the quantity of the communication that matters, more like the quality.  Communication would go more smoothly and more efficiently if there’s a “communication guidelines” slide show or document that your team can refer to.

Even minor suggestions will prove to be valuable, such as suggestions on how to use Twitter effectively, or how to send fewer emails.

Give praise and criticism privately. If you’re supervising other teleworkers, it’s important to send your comments about their work in private. This is true whether you’re working with them online or offline.

Another alternative is to send a message of praise or criticism for everyone to read.  For example, you could send a message to your entire team saying “You’re all doing great!” or “You’re all sending in good work, but here are a few suggestions for everyone…”.  Doing things this way means you’re not singling anyone out.

Be careful about the seemingly unrelated messages you send on a public venue as well.  A random Tweet such as “I’m surrounded by stupid people!” can be taken as a personal insult by your team, even if you were talking about the clerks at your local grocery store.

Supervising a team doesn’t have to be difficult, especially if you make ample preparations.  If you trust the people you work with, and everyone understands the work guidelines, then there’s fewer chances for conflicts to arise.

Have you ever supervised an online team before?  What issues or problems did you encounter?  How did you work through them?

8 Responses to “Avoiding Conflicts Within a Teleworking Team”

  1. Top tips from Yuuguu, where we practise what we preach and all work from home:

    Get the right people

    This is not about their skills on the CV, its about their personality, how they work and what motivates them. We use psychometric testing to make sure people can work on their own, that they will enjoy it and they have the communication skills to work in that way. We also focus on recruiting people for whom working from home can make a big difference in their life; typically people who have spent a few years commuting and are sick of it.

    A clear vision

    You can’t be with people every day so this ensures we are all moving in the same direction.

    No politics

    Politics and sneaking behind people’s backs will kill remote team working. Stamping this out comes from the top – senior management need to make sure this doesn’t happen.

    There’s more on our blog – 10 tips for building a great online team.

  2. This is going to sound terribly old school, but there’s no substitute for a good old fashioned phone call to break out of the “flying email cycle” that inevitably arises when geographically distributed people run into problems. You know what I’m talking about — when you open your inbox to find two dozen messages each with the same subject line and RE: RE: RE: that have arrived in the past 90 minutes. You can get the person(s) on the phone and sort it out, or you can respond via email and just add to the noise…