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5 Powerful Tactics for Engaged Remote Teams

Summary: Distributed teams, working out of the office, are becoming the norm. Much has been written about building effective remote teams – but are they truly engaged remote teams? Here are five things high-powered teams (and their leaders) must do to succeed (no technology required).

The rising tide of remote teams, working from home or some other location, has been a useful tool for business resilience and continuity during the global pandemic. A few simple technology additions to the work environment have allowed office-bound teams to reduce risk while they keep serving customers and moving projects forward. They may be effective – but are they truly engaged remote teams?

This is a significantly different way of working for many people – and for some, it has been a real challenge. To be fair, it depends on the nature of the work; I cannot remotely manufacture a complex product without a significant investment in robotics. Back office processes, on the other hand, can be challenging for remote teams for different reasons.

  • I can’t do it – the process is paper-based, many manual steps are required
  • I won’t do it – I must be able to see my team to manage them

The second bullet point is incredibly powerful, in a very negative way. I am fascinated by “leaders” who feel strongly about the need to be physically present. There are any number of reasons given – perhaps a lack of process or standard work is to blame. But when you drill into the details, it may boil down to a lack of communication and trust.

How Do I Build Highly Engaged Remote Teams?

Strong leaders are not asking how to build an effective remote team. The real challenge is to build an engaged remote team. Do people truly understand the mission and vision of your group, your company, your team? Do they get the feedback and support they need from their direct supervisor? Do they have the tools and the processes they need to do their best work every single day?

In the end, it is all about communication and trust. Remote work changes the process of communication, and we can adjust those processes to drive engagement. Trust is different; you can succeed (or fail!) in delivering a diverse, open, honest, and values-driven team no matter where people are sitting.

This is Not About Technology

Well, not yet.

Typical conversations about remote teams run to this or that video conferencing tool, and the specific features & functionality (and lack thereof). On the other hand, questions about effective process, communication style, and culture (values and trust) are technology agnostic – and much more impactful.

There are five powerful tactics that all groups can use to increase their engagement – and you can use this “change event” of switching to remote work to put these ideas in place. These tactics focus on the human side of remote teams. We will hit a few essential technology ideas in a follow-up article – but for now, let’s put our keyboards aside and listen to some different ideas.

Experience Helps

Try not to debate and opine about “engaged remote teams” until you have worked on an engaged remote team – or connected with someone that has.

This short list is not comprehensive – I am just cherry-picking five specific ideas that have worked exceptionally well for me. The largest team I have managed through this process worked at a decentralized company and was distributed around the globe. The IT team “chased the sun” as we took on run-the-business problems and enhance-the-business projects that challenged our collaboration skills and methods.

The results? Our metrics spoke for themselves – very high engagement scores in the 90s (if you follow that kind of thing), and very low employee turnover rates. More importantly, distance in time and space did not prevent us from being a tightly knit group, solving problems, completing projects, and sharing knowledge. My favorite metric, however, was unexpected – the decibel level at our global meetings. We held annual, larger-scale get-togethers, which allowed us to escape the day-to-day work and connect in person. Everyone listened politely to the presentations – but the good stuff was happening out in the hallway between sessions, when people were making connections and catching up in person. You are doing something right when it’s really tough to get people to quiet down for the next speaker.

Don’t get me wrong – building this level of engagement was not easy, and it did not come naturally for most folks. But as a group, we ran aggressively to this idea of “working different” – talked about it a lot, and encourage input from everyone.

Enter into these things with an open mind; if you can connect with someone who has prior experience, leverage that aggressively. Just approach the whole thing with a sense of adventure (with a little humility and patience thrown in).

Clarity and Structure

Remote communication will introduce time and space to your interactions. You can overcome them with clarity and structure, consistently applied.

First and foremost, you must embrace the idea that most of your communication will happen when you are not in the same room as the other person. When you think about it, that simple statement should have a significant impact on how you create or capture the information that you wanted to deliver. Paying attention to clarity and structure will be critical.

It is easy to walk into someone’s office or work cube and spend 5 or 10 minutes waving your hands and talking through an idea. In-person interaction will quickly get you on the same page with the other person.

It is difficult to create a well-structured, simple (yet complete!) document that describes a problem, an opportunity, a challenge. Then, you must send it off to someone thousands of miles away, who probably won’t read it for another 6 to 8 hours. If you are not there to answer any questions – will you make that connection work?

Clarity refers to the ability to capture ideas, simply and clearly, is an essential skill. Structure is related, but a bit different. In written communication and group meetings, you must define a regular structure that all can agree on and keep to. Your regularly scheduled meetings should keep to the same basic outline and the same [reasonably] tight schedule.

Face Time Is Better

Remote communication can be sterile; find ways to insert some real human connection. A little will go a very long way.

For most people, in-person communication is the least lossy form of sharing information. When your audience is right there, you can make real-time adjustments to your style or content. When you get that silent but puzzled look, the feedback is clear – you better take another run at it. The typical fallback is to make a phone call. You lose the ability to see and react to their face, but at least you can ask the other person if they understood what you just said.

For any on our team, point-to-point video conferencing was the magic bullet to solve this problem. True, it is not quite as useful as being there in person, but at least you get those visual cues to help facilitate the conversation.

Can you engage a remote team 100% over video? I don’t think so – that is pushing things a bit. Our global team made a point to connect in person as often as possible. Travel budgets and time requirements might make that difficult, but if your group has the chance to do some traveling, strongly encourage them to spend the money and the time and make it so. Meet over breakfast (bacon waffles!) or lunch, or grab a beer after work, and talk about more than just the latest project updates. When you can establish that interpersonal connection, it makes the video calls so much better.

Another engaging idea – do not rely solely on group meetings to connect with your teammates. Make time in your schedule for recurring, lightly-structured, 1-on-1 communication with your direct reports, your manager, and your peers. Conversation can be a bit freer, and you can focus on what the other person is trying to say.

Empathy is a Powerful Force

Communication is the responsibility of the “sender.” Take the time to understand how your communications and interactions will be received. 

How often have you been the one person who must dial in to a big conference call? For folks that work at the “home office,” it’s a rare event – and a valuable chance to develop some empathy. You will realize how difficult it is to be out-of-sight, out-of-mind; how often does the meeting moderator forget to acknowledge your presence or ask if you have any input.

How often have you received an email, announcing a meeting or event or training for the folks at headquarters – and wondered how you might participate?

How often have you read a piece of process documentation that assumes you can walk down the hall to connect with the next person in line? Or a policy, written for a local audience – but the reader sits in a different country and speaks a different language? Or a process update, written for a technical reader – when the audience is in HR, Finance, or Operations, and has no idea what all those acronyms mean?

Communication is the responsibility of the “receiver.” Take the time to understand what the other person is saying; if there are any questions, speak up and ask for clarity.

Note that the same is true in reverse! If you are listening to or interacting with someone that rarely connects with people from your country, your team, or your particular background, they may not be aware their communication is misunderstood. Give them the benefit of the doubt; they are trying to tell you something important. If you are not receiving clearly, it could be your loss just as much as theirs.

Take Time to Listen

Use a little orchestration in meetings – guide the conversations and the content, to make sure everyone has a voice.

There is an example of the 8020 rule in this conversation about conversation. Simply put, 80% of the participation in your online meeting will be dominated by 20% of the participants. Of course, this is true for most meetings, but as you are working to create an engaged team, you need to manage the issue proactively.

Productive group meetings need an effective meeting facilitator. You need to make sure everyone on your team has a chance to participate and actively participates – two different ideas. Set up and stick to a [reasonably] tight agenda, where everyone has a certain amount of time to review what they are doing. And keep mental notes on who is participating and who is not. Diplomatically cut off the people that are taking too much time, and prompt the quieter folks to make sure they have a chance to speak.

Note that you are not forcing people to speak; this is not an exercise in making people uncomfortable. It is more about giving people a chance to be heard over the dominant voices that emerge in any crowd.

Lead by Example

Top to bottom, engagement is a participation sport. If you want to be an effective leader of an engaged team, you must lead by example.

Remote work and remote communication can be a daunting proposition. If you are a team manager or group leader, you must listen to and see what is happening (and what is not happening). This kind of communication is different for almost everyone – at first.

If you, as a leader, want truly sustainable engagement, you must walk the walk as much as you talk the talk. Engagement and remote teams are a great idea – but it does take some skill and thoughtful action. If you are new to the practice, you have to learn the basics. If you’ve done this before, but at a different organization or with a different team, you have to learn the environment. Time to practice what you preach!

Insist on regular meetings with your direct reports – show the rest of the team how this works. Actively asked for input – do not assume you know how your messages are received. Ask your audience if you are communicating clearly; is this too much? Not enough? Are we overthinking this? Are we listening, changing, adapting, growing?

What Are You Experiencing?

The journey to build an effective and engaged remote team is different for everyone. What insights have you had? Let us know in the comments below!

# 18 June, 2020

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James MacLennan

... is the Managing Partner at Maker Turtle LLC, a digital consultancy focused on creating value in ways that align with your strategy and drive engagement with employees, customers, and stakeholders. He is an active creator, providing thought leadership through on-line & print publications, and public speaking / keynotes.