Engaging Remote Teams
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Four Technology Insights for Engaging Remote Teams

Summary: Collaboration is a participation sport. To make it all work, everyone needs to change their behavior. And if you want your new technology tools to drive the process forward, you need to practice using them – every chance you get.

In my previous article, I wrote about five powerful tactics for engaging remote teams – with a significant emphasis on culture, behavior, and expectations. You will find nothing in that article about the technology aspects of remote work – and that was on purpose! People gravitate to the tech side of remote teams much too quickly. Of course, enabling technology is going to be a critical part of getting things moving – but for many groups, there is too much time spent on nuances and details in this part of the process.

Don’t get me wrong – I am not saying that we all like to dither and dally, and mess with the shiny new objects. Some of that is bound to happen – and if excitement around the cool new tech helps get this new way of working into your regular day, then it’s all good. The challenge is the march of progress – the never-ending iterative improvements that make things easier to use (hooray!) will introduce more choice (and more indecision) every day (boo!).

To get some traction on managing remote teams, we do not want to lead the conversation with tech considerations. Put your focus first on the culture and management skills required to pull this off.

When the time is right, there are plenty of technology bits to go over – issues that will impact the discussion in ways you might not expect.

Collaboration is the Name of the Game

Let us be clear – this whole “remote teams” thing is bigger than a discussion on video chat platforms. Your teams need to share much more than face time and a common language. Real leverage comes when the team is planning and tracking progress, keeping everyone up to date on status, and capturing knowledge in a simple, flexible, and sustainable [emphasis added] way.  Simple point-to-point video calls won’t cut it – your team needs to adopt a standard collaboration platform.

Be open to experimentation with different collaboration tools and environments. Don’t settle on the default presented by your IT organization, and don’t gravitate to “the one everybody is talking about.” Innovation and change happens at a pretty good clip in this space (check out this excellent Benedict Evans article on the topic). This month’s must-have new capability will quickly be everywhere, cloned in the rush for feature parity and eclipsed by the next great idea.

There is no single list of features required by all teams – it truly depends on how your team works together, and what teamwork problems they are trying to solve. Large companies may focus on the mundane and boring – security and access, integration to the existing communication infrastructure. Things go slowly, but things don’t break. Smaller firms like their flexibility and want to implement quickly. Great energy, but they also need to focus on changes in their work processes, like shared editing and version control. Collaboration means you are no longer a lone wolf – and everyone needs to think beyond their keyboard.

One Platform To Rule Them All?

The central debate, it seems, centers on which communications platform to use. Facetime? Teams? Zoom? They all have their strong suits, and they all have weak points. Variety and choice are great, but we are implementing a collaborative environment to drive productivity; decisions must be made, and standards must be set.

It is always good practice to do some live evaluations; UX and usability issues have killed many collaboration efforts. Be open to experimentation with a few different environments – but be deliberate about it. You have to pick something and eliminate the sprawl of multiple environments.

Be open to tools that you “don’t like” – there is no one rule that makes any tool universally best. Just because it’s the most secure, the easiest to use, the most integrated, or the one that some externals use – or any other single reason – is not sufficient to make it “the obvious choice.” It’s a choice – one of many. Be open to give on certain things as you look for the best fit.

Periodically, you can and should look at “state of the art” tools – see if it’s time to change. But be mindful of the growing list of options – if you add a new tool, then take an old one out.

Note that your considerations may need to change if and when you want to extend your collaboration activities with external partners – customers, suppliers, and third-party services. Working in multiple collaboration environments should be expected when interacting with people outside of your organization. But for sanity’s sake (and much better productivity), your company must standardize on a single environment for all internal teams.

Learn by Doing!

Collaboration is a participation sport. To make it all work, everyone needs to change their behavior. And if you want your new technology tools to drive the process forward, you need to practice using them – every chance you get. If you don’t spend the time up front, the tools will just get in the way.

Everyone on the team needs to use the tools as much as possible. Learn the quirks – and learn how to work around them. When you are running a big meeting but struggling with screen or document sharing, and you write it off to “unfriendly tech” – well, you just look silly. Every technology has idiosyncrasies and inconsistencies – as well as a number of great tricks. Learn to navigate these applications as smoothly as you skim through your eMail, whip up a presentation, or hack together a spreadsheet.

Collaboration is all about the team – but for lasting success, management needs to lead by example. It’s all about capturing and sharing knowledge – so start typing. Actively use the new collab tools and stop using your comfortable standards. Yep – I am talking about eMail! Each time an email is sent to one (and only one) person, it is a lost opportunity to involve and inform others in the conversation.

Leaders must drive this fundamental behavior change every single day. Get hands-on experience – be self-sufficient, and impress your teams with your skill. Once the standard is set, do NOT accept documentation or knowledge capture or side chats on multiple platforms. Drive to a standard collaboration platform like you drive to a common culture and vision – it is just as important!

Engaging Remote Teams is Not That Easy

Here is the big secret that software vendors do not stress; communication is hard! These fancy collaboration platforms have tremendous powers to amplify your communication and your shared work product. However, you need to start with great content, else you will just be confusing people faster.

It is much easier to walk down the hall and describe what I am thinking by waving my hands or sketching on a whiteboard, and speaking in sentence fragments. A terrific use of time, but the value is gone in an instant, a single spark between two people that flames out within the hour.

How powerful it will be when that transfer of knowledge, that captured idea, is stashed in the knowledge base, ready to be searched and found (!) and re-used (!!), again and again.

How powerful it will be when you can share that idea and pull in the thinking of people around the world, or just around the corner.

Ah, but there is a significant step that must be taken. I must learn how to capture ideas so that they can be understood when I am not in the room. A simple idea, but it is often a quantum leap of communication skills that many struggle with.

Lead with Vulnerability

In the first article of this series, I put an idea out there that got a few interesting reactions …

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.

Some took offense at the tone, and were ready to challenge the idea. In the conversation that followed, however, it became clear that they were a bit nervous about the impact that their new collaborative world would have on the workplace.

People understand, at a base level, the power of controlling information.

If I am the only person who knows how this works, they cannot fire me…

Now that the new system is in, I no longer have special/unique value …

If I ask for help, I am demonstrating my inability to do my job …

Please do not scoff – those are real sentiments expressed by real people in my past. These feelings are real – and coupled with the general inability to effectively communicate in writing (a common trait, unfortunately), it is no wonder that organizations often struggle with collaboration.

As a leader, make a point to run to this challenging part of the conversation. Talk openly about your career experience with communications and collaboration – especially if you do not have that much experience. Be open and vulnerable in talking about what works and what doesn’t.

Above all – be sure to stress the value we are working to create.

We are trying to bring remote teams closer together …

We are driving productivity by not answering the same question twice …

We are building scale by building on the lessons of the past …

Yes, collaboration with a remote team is hard. Happily, the payoff is huge – you get what you pay for, especially when you pay with human experience, insight, and heart.

# 11 August, 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.