How do you manage a team separated by time zones, cultures, work methods, and personalities? Even professionally trained project managers struggle to foster remote collaboration. Technology is one answer – such as instant messaging, video conferencing, and online planning and scheduling charts – but project managers must reinforce these digital tools with a shared purpose and good management practices.
Project managers who learn to adapt their leadership and organizational skills across these different communication mediums will be more likely to lead strong, productive teams. This article presents six tips for helping virtual teams collaborate smoothly to get work done, starting with what and why.
What is remote collaboration?
Remote collaboration is working together effectively with colleagues, customers, and partners across distances – whether they are in the next room or on the other side of the globe. The growth in virtual teams over the past several years coincides with advances in technology and rising complexity in creating digitally connected products, services, and customer experiences.
In the wake of the events of the COVID-19 pandemic, many organizations found themselves faced with the necessity for remote collaboration among employees. It’s an advantage if organizations can bring diverse groups of talented people together no matter where they live to collaborate, innovate, and tackle complicated challenges online.
Why is remote collaboration important?
Beyond achieving project goals, learning to better collaborate remotely is essential because it is becoming normalized. Many employees who recently tried remote work for the first time prefer it to being in an office. A July Gartner survey found that 82 percent of company leaders will allow employees to continue working remotely at least part of the time, and almost half said that their employees may continue full-time remote work.
This makes it vital to create an outstanding, consistent experience. Those working from home or other locations should no longer be perceived and treated as outliers, even if the majority of their colleagues are in an office. Looking forward, McKinsey advises leaders to erase the lines of demarcation that normally exist between them:
“To maintain productivity, collaboration, and learning and to preserve the corporate culture, the boundaries between being physically in the office and out of the office must collapse. In-office videoconferencing can no longer involve a group of people staring at one another around a table while others watch from a screen on the side, thus unable to participate effectively.”McKinsey & Company
The good news is that organizations have had a crash course in remote collaboration lately. Leaders have made great strides in deploying these technologies. A new KPMG CEO Outlook survey revealed that 77 percent plan to continue building on their current use of digital collaboration and communication tools.
Of course, success requires more than technology. Here are the six tips to enhance collaboration across distances.
1. Communicate Clearly and Often
Good communication is vital to effective virtual teams. Each person must have a firm grasp of priorities, deadlines, expectations, and objectives at all times. In addition, coordinating work is simpler when project managers and team members alike can see who is working on what and when.
Project managers should also check in with each individual frequently, across different communication channels. Beyond work-related matters, the purpose is to ensure remote employees are feeling engaged and empowered. This helps build a rapport and maintain an employee’s connection to what is happening within the company.
Along these lines, another tip for enhancing remote collaboration is to communicate how the team is contributing to the corporate strategy. This is often more motivating for employees who value intrinsic rewards over external ones. It also increases the probability that everyone is continually executing on strategy.
2. Set Communication Boundaries and Norms
One of the perks for virtual employees is the freedom to work in their own ways. Project managers should support this flexibility, suppressing the urge to micromanage or follow up too much on tasks. It can be useful to ask questions such as how team members prefer to communicate, what time of day each individual is most productive, and when each prefers to be offline.
Communicating these preferences to the team encourages respect of each person’s boundaries and needs. This can increase morale and enable each group member to do his or her best work. It’s important to factor time zones into these decisions as well, since overlapping work hours may be few and far between.
To keep work on track and streamline communication, project managers should establish norms for the overall team as well. Mandatory meetings could be one. Taking a page from agile methodology, a daily standup meeting of 15 minutes or less can be productive.
Other remote collaboration norms could include the standard use of some applications for consistent communication and times when everyone should be online. Project managers could also provide guidelines for how often to communicate, how quickly to respond to messages, and other interactions. Individual teams should also have the flexibility to choose their own norms and tools relevant to their areas of expertise.
3. Encourage Equal Participation Across Collaboration Channels
Understanding team personalities and communication styles can help keep everyone engaged and involved. For example, some people enjoy seeing their colleagues on video with all the nonverbal cues, while others prefer written communications or one-on-one interactions. One mark of a good manager is knowing which communication channel to use in which situation and with what group of people or person.
For example, video conferencing is essential but can be challenging. It’s difficult to hold a productive session when everyone tries to talk at once. Being more organized can ensure a valuable session where everyone has a chance to speak.
The host or moderator could publish a meeting agenda with blocks of time for each person to present. Another option is to have people who want to ask a question or make a comment raise their hand in a chat box. Then the moderator can recognize them at an appropriate time.
Managers should encourage remote collaboration from employees who are more introverted and less likely speak. Asking for their input can bring them into the conversation and make them feel more included – as will following up with them afterwards. This also applies to meetings where remote workers are on video and other employees are in an office together.
4. Make Time for Team Building
The rigidity of these formal meetings makes it important to have more informal interactions. Virtual happy hours, online gaming, video meetings with pets, and more can help build camaraderie and trust. These events can provide the natural human contact that people may miss in an office setting.
A group of professors in the UK and New Zealand did a study about informal virtual gatherings during the pandemic and found additional benefits. For example, online networking events around the world enabled colleagues who never would have met in person to converse virtually. Co-workers who had met in the office only a few times got to know each other better and started ongoing correspondences. All of this opens the door to more collaborative opportunities in the future.
5. Celebrate Successes
Project managers should also use remote collaboration to recognize deserving employees. Isolated from their peers, remote workers can feel especially under-appreciated, stressed, and uncertain. Gartner asserts that disruptive times increase the need for employees to be acknowledged for their accomplishments by about 30 percent.
Managers must make an effort to know what teams are working on and each individual’s contributions. It can help to ask questions about recent successes, creative ideas, obstacles they have overcome, or colleagues who have assisted them. Small tokens of appreciation such as gift cards, an online toast, or some time off can go a long way.
6. Share Files and Data
Collaborating remotely is much easier when teams can share documents and data in one place. Ideally, everyone can securely access and edit all project documents. Any changes should be visible to the team immediately, with version control to see the latest documents.
This approach prevents files and other information from getting lost in spreadsheets, e-mails, and other siloed systems. Teams work together better when they have collective views into up-to-date project data and details. A visual depiction of activities, milestones, dependencies, due dates, and roadblocks keeps projects on track.
Bridge the Distance and Get Work Done as a Team
It’s challenging enough to manage a team that is located physically together. Cultivating remote collaboration adds layers of difficulty, including keeping everyone on the same digital page. To that end, a shared workspace such as a project management tool or collaboration software can keep teams on track. These tips should help set the stage for high-quality, timely work delivery, no matter where in the world people are.