Most communication with our clients is remote, even though we are in a “high touch” business. Our customers are spread around the world. Even if our client is in the same city, their time is precious. A video-conference or phone call is usually strongly preferred if it is effective. That is a dramatic shift from twenty years ago when few people had email or mobile phones.
Gallup and the Bureau of Labor Statistics say 22% of Americans work from home. In total, 50% are involved with remote or virtual team work. Almost 100% of our clients are dealing with remote teams as a significant part of their role. The HBR article “How to Collaborate Effectively if Your Team is Remote” by Erica Dhawan and Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic identify three types of remote collaboration:
- Physical – place and time
- Operational – team size, bandwidth and skill levels
- Affinity – values, trust, and inter-dependency
The approaches recommended in the HBR article are closely aligned with the message in our book, “Seeing Yourself As Others Do” (SYAOD). They are applicable for all teams, and more important than ever for remote teams. If done well, remote teams may be more effective than local teams … more on that later.
Very clear expectations are essential for all teams. It is important to not be too brief, and then assume that others understand. The Expectation Model in SYAOD lays out the steps to create clarity and accountability. The opportunity for misunderstanding with remote teams is significantly higher than in face-to-face situations. Therefore, clarity of expectations is significantly more important with remote teams.
Clear expectations require respect for the remote team based on the physical, operational and affinity versions of remote communication. The challenge is to be clear without overwhelming team members with communication that is too voluminous or too frequent.
Clarity of how people should communicate within the team is one of those expectation areas. Communication norms are even more important in remote communications. For example, email standards that help significantly include:
- Clear SUBJECT lines.
- Guidance for who is “cc:’d” or “bcc:’d” on emails.
- Opening with a context statement for the email (a partial substitute for body language).
- Clear response time expectations based on type of email.
- Rules of engagement such as, “Pick-up the phone after three exchanges.”
Another key tool for remote communication is using video-conferencing. Our surveys show a wide range of commitment to video-conference use. Those who overcome their initial hesitation to do video-conferencing are strongly committed to use it with their team. “I require all my one-on-one remote meetings to be on video” was the position of one global leader. Done well, it can almost be like face-to-face communication. When structured properly, remote communications is often an effective way to increase participation by more introverted team members.
Our workshop on remote communication is a totally remote video-conference workshop with up to seven participants located around the world. It’s called, “3D Personality on a Flat Screen“. Participants have said it is better than an in-person class because they can see all participants’ faces during the workshop.
Choiceful celebration and acknowledgement of others is also valuable with remote teams. Recognizing special events in other countries, for example, makes the team member feel more like a part of the team. Being respectful of time zone differences as well as national and religious holidays is very helpful. Some teams have have gained stronger connections by sharing pictures of their work environment, and even pictures or videos of their trips to work each day.
Twenty years ago, leaders from global companies typically traveled to the remote locations. They learned many things about their remote team members by being face-to-face, and being in the same environment. Much of the understanding gained was second nature in that setting, for both the leader and the remote team members. A goal for today’s remote team is to intentionally build some of that awareness, to create more understanding and commitment.