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Despite the proliferation of options for communication, the way workflow, responsibilities, and collaboration are managed in this scenario can be quite different from on-site or partially dispersed teams.
To get it right, team leaders need to consider the interplay of three crucial factors: frequency, transparency, and variability.
In an office, communications are incidental, and frequency is high. With dispersed teams, communicating is an effort, and frequency is often much lower.
The concept of frequency affects communication like status updates and meetings, as well as casual team interactions. But it also affects momentum: the timeframes in which outputs are created, and how swiftly they’re taken into the next stage of the project.
Different projects and timeframes require different communications frequencies. You’ll want all the members of your dispersed team to be able to work comfortably to a given level of frequency, or intensity.
So as you’re planning workflow, milestones, and deliverables, consider whether your dispersed team will be working exclusively on this project, or on others at the same time. What does team members’ degree of focus mean for the potential frequency of communications and deliverables? How can you support those needs in order to get the job done?
The best dispersed teamwork is supported by strong transparency. Your team members may never meet in person, but they need to get enough of a feel for one another to collaborate closely, and get the work done.
Transparency is important in a number of areas, including availability, progress and outputs, as well as personalities. Setting explicit baseline expectations of transparency — outlining up-front what kinds of project information should be shared, and how, for example — is a good start, but more work may be needed to keep things transparent on a day-to-day basis.
Should all project-related discussions be shared, and is IM therefore a less-than-deal communication tool? Are there times when team members will all be online — and does everyone know what those times are? Are there certain outputs that should not be available to all team members? Will your Yammer steam be strictly business, or will you encourage team members to share more broadly, to make it more fun?
These are the kinds of questions that are easily overlooked, but which can greatly influence the sense of openness and participation of distributed team members.
It can be easy to see remote team members as resources, or sets of capabilities, rather than real people with real lives. A truly productive, smooth-working dispersed team will flexibly cater to individuals’ needs and differences.
This might mean that you create a rotating schedule for team meetings, so that everyone shares the burden of time zone differences, and the same team member isn’t staying up until midnight every Tuesday to meet with you.
You may encourage team members to share things like personal websites or work histories, so each team member has an idea of others’ experience, capabilities, and areas of interest. You might ask the team to choose the tools you use to share information and communicate about the project.
Promoting the open communication of unexpected hurdles — illnesses and other events that take team members out of the work for a period — may be another way to ensure the smooth running of a team whose members may come online at different times, and at different intervals from the team leader.
Frequency, transparency and variability are critical factors in the smooth running of dispersed teams. Being conscious of them as you establish and support remote team members can have a significant impact on project success.