Today, technology enables team members to be placed anywhere in the world more easily than ever—meaning companies can secure top talent regardless of location.
In many ways, managing dispersed teams is the same as single-location management— performance is still evaluated, goals are still set, and work still gets done. The magic is in building a winning dynamic amongst the team, and that requires collaboration, cohesiveness, and trust. Effective communication lies at the center of it all.
There is no doubt that emulating water-cooler chats among dispersed coworkers is difficult, but strong communication is modeled from the top down. If executives choose to expand their talent searches to remote workers globally, serious consideration should be given to how the organization will communicate and train its leaders to maximize remote employee productivity. This is most successfully done by establishing clear communication guidelines for dispersed teams.
These guidelines should detail management tips to promote agile communication within dispersed teams and foster an environment of ongoing inclusion. While acknowledging that there may be stumbling blocks at the outset—and acknowledging that every cultural nuance will not immediately be recognized—the guidelines will serve as a starting point towards achieving fluid communication among geographically dispersed employees.
The creation of the dispersed teams communication guidelines should pull in stakeholders from multiple teams, including those locally based and key stakeholders from other areas.
Portions of these guidelines are unique to every company based on culture, industry, and other factors, but there are a few things that every effective plan should take into consideration:
Kick dispersed team management off right. Before chats and emails become the main mode of communication within a team, whenever possible, companies should encourage managers to bring dispersed teammates together in one centralized location upon a project kick off or when a new team member is brought on board.
These initial meetings allow teammates to put faces to names before they become screen names, email addresses, and cell phone numbers. The ability for these team members to engage in face-to-face conversation—even for a few days—aids ongoing communication long after the gathering. Team managers should be encouraged to schedule a few of these throughout the year, including out-of-the-office activities to further build comradery.
Define approved forms of communication. Each company has communication preferences—whether it’s a specific video conferencing program or a messaging tool. These should be clearly outlined in the communication guidelines, and conference rooms equipped with these capabilities should be listed. This encourages regular meetings and reduces the risk of skipping important interactions due to external barriers.
Set an established default time zone. While difficult for those who might be on the early (or late) end of an established time zone, it is important that a team set a default time zone for operations—especially when deadlines are looming. This doesn’t mean that every single person has to work the same hours within that time zone, but it does help to keep mandatory meetings and check-ins consistent.
Don’t rely on digital communication. We all fall into the trap of back and forth emails and chains that end up going on and on. The risk with this is that decisions aren’t clearly made or interim decisions get lost in a sea of “reply alls.” To avoid these issues, managers should set guidelines and provide some scenario examples for when team members should simply pick up the phone rather than go back and forth via email.
It is easy to overlook that digital communication platforms are often overused and don’t allow for team-building relationships. Digital communication affords the opportunity for quick, precise, and to-the-point communication—but it is often misinterpreted and doesn’t expand far beyond work communication. It can also discourage some from picking up the phone to clear up misunderstandings or to simply just hear a voice on the other end of the conversation.
Establish a quick view calendar. Depending on what countries are reflected on a project team, it is a good idea to have the standard holidays of all countries listed in the communication guidelines and available to team members. Many countries have holidays that are not on the U.S. calendar; so, it is good to be prepared and staffed accordingly.
Provide brief culture tips. There is absolutely no way to write out every single cultural nuance for team members based in other countries. But there are a few from each country that could be helpful. For instance, in China, gift giving is frowned upon in business settings. Or, when at dinner, guests should wait to be seated as there is a seating protocol based on hierarchy. The inclusion of a few commonly accepted tips on the dispersed teams communication guidelines can go a long way.
Appoint a team facilitator. It has been reported that nearly 55 percent of employees do not feel 100 percent confident participating fully in remote meetings—but appointing a team facilitator can help. The facilitator is involved in the team at every level, helps create meaningful discussions in meetings, and keeps conversations flowing during video and digital meetings.
The facilitator also makes sure that all team members are prepared by creating easily-understandable documentation before each meeting, providing a well-defined agenda, and answering any pre-meeting questions.
He or she also ensures all digital aids are online and ready for the meeting, and that all communication channels are operational. If a team is dispersed globally, the facilitator will also make sure there is a comfortable mode of translation should additional language assistance be needed.
These are just a few important suggestions to foster open communication among dispersed teams. What is important for managers to remember is that “out of sight, out of mind” has no place in dispersed team management. Instead, managers should work towards transparent, inclusive, and constant communication, because when it comes to dispersed teams, over-communication is rarely possible.
Learn more about dispersed team management in the following upcoming blog posts:
- Topic 2: Inclusion. The importance of total team inclusion and tips to make it easier.
- Topic 3: Culture. For teams dispersed globally, understanding cultural nuances, time differences & holiday schedules important.
- Topic 4: Structure. Showing consistency and structure by holding weekly meetings, individual check-ins, and conveying clear expectations and objectives.
Laura Smith is the vice president of global human resources for Digital Intelligence Systems, LLC—a global services and staffing firm based in McLean, Va., with more than 33 offices worldwide. Smith has more than 25 years of human resources experience and maintains the SPHR certification. She has also been named to Staffing Industry Analysts' Global Power Women in Staffing List for the last two years.