The last 10 years have seen the rise of social online tools. It has become very easy to connect and stay connected over large distances and across time. We have found our high school buddies again and are given the means to stay in touch with them and everyone we meet. Criticism about the depth of these social connections aside, social online tools have radically reduced the cost and effort to connect and communicate with others.
In the same period the structure of most companies has changed quite dramatically, too. From relatively simple but slow and often bureaucratic hierarchical organizations many have evolved to become highly complex matrix organizations who organize around international project teams. Distributed work has become the norm rather than the exception.
Yet, only marketing departments and agencies have fully embraced social online tools and much of the rest of the enterprise world has, somewhat jealously, watched from the sidelines.
More and more companies are analyzing how these new tools can benefit them and many have already heavily invested in tools and infrastructure. Very few however, have come to the conclusion that tools and infrastructure alone will not improve how their employees collaborate. And those who have started initiatives to foster communication and collaboration and encourage the use of new tools, more often than not have focussed their efforts on the whole company and not on the teams, who get the work done.
We have to invest more in teams
Teamwork is becoming more and more complex. As companies and organizations become international, project teams but also permanent teams become more and more distributed. While in the past there might have been 1 or 2 remote team members, today, we find a lot of teams distributed across many time zones, where physical distance and cultural differences create a very diverse setting.
Tools and infrastructure and even collaboration initiatives oftentimes overlook or even undermine specific needs some teams have, and there is also little support for teams to figure out how to organize themselves and deal with problems that inevitably arise. Many teams thus feel abandoned and left alone with their challenges.
We believe that for remote work to function well and deliver on its promises, companies have to invest in their teams. In particular there are three areas where remote teams need specific support.
We need to strengthen project management capacities
These days more and more of the work is executed in projects. Even permanent teams, like HR or Marketing departments get much of their work done through projects.
It is important to note that, also in virtual settings, the classical project management concepts and methods are still useful. What is different now is how they are applied in a project.
As we have explained above complexity has increased and change that affects you and your project is faster and less predictable than in the past. This means that we need a much more agile approach to project management where feedback loops are much shorter, so we can react and correct faster. For example, we need to define smaller work packages that can be done in a week or less instead of the typical 3 month milestones in traditional projects.
The importance of planning in this approach does not lie in its thoroughness or detail orientation. Rather, preparation and planning should be used to reach clarity within the project team and between sponsor, project team and stakeholders about goals, scope, and key terms and concepts that will guide the project.
We need to develop digital literacy of our teams
Second, working across distance requires new ways of communicating using online tools. For many, this technical dimension of virtual work is the biggest challenge to more satisfying and productive teamwork.
Knowing which tools to use and how to use them, however, is only one aspect of this challenge. The other is integrating the tool into your work processes, which requires the team to review and adapt the way they work together.
Not only do individual employees need training to learn how to use the tools, but also teams need to figure out together how they will apply these tools to fit their needs. This can be a quite time intensive process, but it is essential for teams to produce the results their organization expects from them.
We have to finally apply decade-old lessons on leadership
Third, in virtual settings, team differences, communication issues or misunderstandings lead much faster to severe problems for the teams and might undermine trust or even end in open conflicts.
That does not mean we need a new way of thinking about leadership. The concepts and approaches that have been taught in business courses in the last decades are still valid.
In the virtual work situation, however, carelessness in leadership will be punished with distance. Appointments are not met, employees do not appear to the agreed-upon meetings. In meetings they leave. Collaboration simply no longer takes place. And worst of all, you can hardly do anything against it. Classical command and control actions and methods have no effect.
One of the consequences is that team leaders have to be very explicit in communicating with their team. Can you be sure that everyone comes at the same time, when you agree to meet at 10 am? Which time zone? Are there cultural differences in punctuality?
If you are on facebook or twitter you might have connections who post what they ate and where they are at any given time during the day. These updates might seem trivial and useless.
In a virtual team, however, these bits of information can go a long way in getting to know each other and creating team cohesion. Knowing if my colleague is traveling or has private problems, for example, gives important contextual information. If my team mates and I sit in the same office, there is a lot context information I get without actively seeking it out.
Virtual is different and requires investing in remote teams
Companies have to realize that virtual work is different. Working successfully in this new reality (distributed and virtual work) cannot be accomplished by taking what is known to work in the traditional face-to-face world and attempt to transfer these lessons into the distributed work reality. Rather, companies need to make targeted investments in the development of their remote teams. In particular to help them re-think their work processes, developing tool skills, and, establishing a new leadership culture.