In a distributed team environment, it can be quite challenging to keep everyone on the same page, make people feel engaged, and promote continuity in a synchronized way. I recently asked for ideas on how to keep remote team members "connected" to the rest of the team, and I received some great suggestions from the NWA community.
While I fully agree that this issue is not a technology issue, I also feel that the right technology can help facilitate meaningful, productive interactions - and can even promote the development of better communication habit.
With that in mind, my "wish list" was for any technology suggested to meet the following criteria:
- relatively inexpensive
- accessible without requiring a VPN connection
- able to handle structured tracking of tasks, interactions, etc.
With that as a basis, helpfulness ensued.
Tell The World
Roman suggested creating a planned way for people to volunteer for tasks in a visible way. This creates the desire to show results so you can report on your achievements. It satisfies the ego, while promoting sharing of experiences and knowledge.
On a related note, Chris pointed out that motivation can be a significant challenge in distributed teams. Chris outlined several factors that increase motivation:
- Expressing appreciation for work well done
- Creating a feeling of "being in on things"
- Helping with personal problems the team members are facing
- Ensuring that group meetings are about genuine colaboration and joint problem solving - not just a briefing or status update.
This really rang true for EM, who related a story about when she was a project manager on a project that ended up getting lots of attention from corporate headquarters.
They sent a photographer out to take EM's photo for the magazine, and she asked them to include the whole team in the photo. She said this created a tangible shift in the morale and enerty in the team - an already-effective team became even more engaged due to the team recognition and collective pride it created. And, I bet, the team would've taken a bullet for EM after that small (but powerful) gesture!
Oh, and did I mention she got the project in on time and under budget?
Can You Hear Me Now?
Roger, Roman, and Chris all suggested picking up that darned phone and talking to each other. One-to-one conversations are good; team conference calls are even better.
Don't like talking on the phone? Karl has found Instant Messaging to be great tool to grease the skids even more - the efficiency of IM makes it more likely that people will use it for ad hoc communications (less "overhead" than a phone call).
But What Do We Talk About?
Having a visual "anchor" can make a big difference - ever notice when you ask someone to listen to something on the radio, they usually look at the radio? Obviously, not necessary but it seems to help with focus.
A visual anchor has the benefit of creating "shared perspective" of what the team's working on (if you've ever read anything about the networked battlefield, you'll know that it greatly increases team effectiveness in combat).
- Karl suggested Wiki's as a way to track status, responsibilities, minutes, call logs, and - especially - reference information. However, he pointed out that the Wiki can be a bit clunky when it comes to task tracking (unless anyone knows of a better way to do this with a Wiki, and would like to share it with us???)
- Roger suggested establishing shared workspaces to help provide a unified view - and to help the introverted, quiet folks on your team engage in a way that is more comfortable for them. More on how to do that in The Tool Shed, below.
Seek Professional Help
All the tools in the world won't make people use them.Screaminscott - rightly so - stated that "All the tools in the world won't make people use them." He suggests using a professional Project Manager (PM) to impose order on the project, and keep things on track. An effective PM will mind the details while ensuring that the details stay true to the vision of the project.
I'll add that this is certainly reflective of my own experience in a team, as well. Furthermore, the more explicitly you communicate roles, expectations, commitments, and processes, the better things seem to work. The Project Manager then holds people accountable to those things.
For examples of Project Mangement (both good examples and poor examples) you can always watch The Apprentice!
The Tool Shed
The group provided a cornucopia of technology suggestions to help make these tasks easier.
- As mentioned above, Karl suggested using a Wiki for group collaboration, and pointed out a free one at www.schtuff.com.
- Roman, Roger and Karl suggested the tools created by 37 Signals - including BaseCamp (which is well-suited for project tracking), and Writeboard
- Incidentally, when Bren, Skip, and I started roughing out the plan for Never Work Alone, Bren set up a Writeboard for us and it worked very well.
- Roger suggested Central Desktop as a way to creat the shared workspaces he recommends.
- Stacy and Loretta are very high on Groove as a way to work more effectively with distributed teams.
- Stacy finds it indispensable, and uses it with 20 different teams at once!
- Loretta uses it in her consulting practice to provide each client with their own private workspace, and finds it to be highly effective for road warriors, as your views are accessible and synchronized from anywhere.
- Loretta pointed out a great list of topics and resources on virtual teams, courtesy of Dr. Carter McNamara.
- Wiki Goodness from SlackerManager
- Wiki, wiki. Smooth and sticky. from Genuine Curiosity
Helpful, caring, experienced people are what make Never Work Alone go. Thanks for all the contributions and insight on this topic from the following people:
- Roman Rytov, Karl Whealton, Roger Canada, Stacy Brice, Loretta (aka LLD), screaminscott, Chris Bower, and EM Sky.
Dwayne Melancon is the author of the Genuine Curiosity blog.