Remote Working: Turning "Them" Into "Us"

Last Updated Oct 7, 2009 5:13 AM EDT

The problem with team-building (remote or co-located) is that sometimes it feels like you're trying really hard to be a good teammate, but other people are letting you down - it feels like it's not you, it's "them".

Whether "they" are head office, our guy in Birmingham or that inscrutable group in Bangalore, it's impossible to create a truly effective team unless you start thinking "us". We develop trust when our goals, motives and competencies are aligned. But when you are miles apart, how can managers ensure people are pulling in the same direction?

Without getting all soppy, here are some tips for helping create stronger ties between team members.

Who are these people?

Studies have shown that when you have a visual picture of someone, you immediately begin to form a tighter bond with them. Putting faces to names is an important part of how we assess the strength of information we receive, whether we can trust people and whether we want to make an effort to work closely with them.

Find a place to post photos on your intranet, social networking site (NING or Facebook are free) or just send out pictures (preferably candid but non-incriminating) periodically so that people know who they are dealing with.

What’s their problem?

Humans are naturally suspicious creatures. When faced with a lack of hard evidence, they tend to make things up - and it’s seldom the best-case scenario (it's nature’s way of helping you avoid becoming someone’s lunch). “Why did she miss that deadline? Obviously she’s an idiot,” is a prime example. Of course, most people are not idiots, but when lacking information to the contrary, it’s just easier to make that assumption. Constant updates and honest feedback on how projects are progressing and what challenges teammates face will keep people in the loop and encourage active assistance rather than reactive situations where the deadline passes and panic ensues.

Encourage people to post regularly to discussion boards and social network sites, where the first person or best person to answer can help. When you get an individual message from a team member with a problem or question, suggest they post to the group site. This is better than just bombarding people with emails because they won’t have to hunt for the file or wonder if they are reading the latest version. You also get a small piece of your life back.

I have no idea how they got that job

Did you know that “idiot” in your New York office has an advanced degree from the same university that rejected you? Or that she worked on a high-level project before winding up on your team? Knowing the backgrounds of your teammates is often helpful, not just for creating human connections but knowing to whom you should turn for answers.

Post profiles of your team members where people can find them, and make sure that all new members provide a profile on their first day of work. Besides education and credentials, personal information like whether or not you have children, your hobbies and whether you work from home or an office are all important.

What do they do all day?

One of the biggest causes of mistrust in remote teams is waiting for information and assuming it’s being withheld for some reason. We sent the request — why don’t they respond? The simple fact could be that they are busy with something else, or they don’t know you’re waiting for that response, tapping your foot and calling them names. It could be the middle of the night where they are and dragging themselves out of bed to give you that piece of information just never occurred to them. Whatever the reason, it helps if we know what others are working on and have a clear indication of their priorities.

Take time at the beginning of a team meeting, teleconference or Webmeeting for updates. If you work as part of a large team, this might take up too much time, so try showcasing one person, team or location for each meeting. A client of mine in the non-profit sector regularly rotates meeting-host duties to showcase individual team members. Each host offers an update on their work.

It’s just easier for me (the manager) to do it

You’ve been there. A team member asks for a piece of information, or the latest version of something that another team member elsewhere has sent. You could tell them that’s why you have shared drives and they can find it on the SharePoint group site you spent so much time and money on, but it’s the path of least resistance to just stop what you’re doing and re-send it. Stop that, you’re enabling bad habits.

When someone requests the latest version of a piece of group work, take the time to send a polite but firm note to remind them where that information resides. You might even suggest that they contact the teammate responsible for that information directly and just let you know how that works out for them.

Use good old people skills to augment technology if you want to facilitate human contact and develop trust in your team. It will dramatically increase the return on your investment.