Why Your Team Doesn't Use Those Collaboration Tools

Last Updated Mar 9, 2010 1:43 PM EST

How many organizations have invested in collaboration and communication tools to help their remote teams, only to complain that they don't get used and the money's wasted? You've seen it: SharePoint sites go unused, web presentation licenses are paid for and left underutilized. Maybe that's because they're looking at the problem backwards: you need to start with good group dynamics, then add tools to help them interact. If the team leadership and dynamic aren't there to start with, technology won't cure the group's ills.

Let's face it, Genghis Khan ruled half the known world and never once held an all-hands Telepresence meeting or got people to give up dinner with the family for a conference call. He didn't need to when he had a highly competent, motivated team with a clear mission (and the ability to dispose of the lazy and incompetent in ways HR wouldn't approve of, but we won't dwell on that for now). The dynamics of getting people to work together haven't changed in thousands of years. You need a common goal, everyone needs to be competent, and everyone needs to trust each others' motives. That's why some managers can get things done with just a telephone and an email account, while others have all the tools they could possibly need and still can't get the Fleuverman Project in on time. Effective managers concentrate on the team dynamics and use what's at their disposal to make it work.

Whether you're using the latest gadgets or not, here are three keys to getting your remote team to pull together:

  1. Make sure everyone's working to a common goal -- and repeat it often. Many leaders assume their teams know the goal of the project or task at hand. Don't leave it to chance. Start every meeting with a recap of what you're trying to achieve and how your team's work will help you get there. Seriously, even if you think it's redundant, you can't communicate your team goals and outcomes often or clearly enough. It will also allow people identify and avoid busy work: If it doesn't help you achieve your desired outcomes, why do it?
  2. Know your competition. Remote workers frequently have competing priorities (their "real" boss, the people they physically work with, other projects they're working on). If you don't know what else is impinging on their time, you might be unpleasantly surprised when they refuse simple requests or otherwise let you and the team down. Take the time to ask each team member -- on a regular basis -- what the demands are on their time and what might make it hard for them to meet their deadlines. Just acknowledging what's going on in the rest of their world goes a long way to building loyalty and good working relationships.
  3. Make it easy for people to get the help and answers they need. People often have questions, concerns, and skill gaps that can get in the way of doing great work. If you're hard to reach and team members don't have the kind of relationships where they're willing to go to each other for help, the quality of work suffers and team morale plummets. Keep your time commitments to team members and help them recognize other resources on your team by delegating answers to their teammates.
If you start with what makes a great team and then figure out how to overcome distance, things start to make a lot more sense. Suddenly that intranet site isn't a complicated waste of time, it's a great way to share information between team members as quickly as possible. Webinars might be a pain in the neck, but if a lot of different folks are crying out for the same information, it'll take less time to set one up than to talk to each person individually.

Once you realize the dynamics of a good team relationship, you'll be able and motivated to use the tools at your disposal to create the environment your remote folks need to do excellent work.

Photo from Wikimedia Commons