Here’s the paradox with remote teams: individuals often claim to be more productive when they’re away from the distractions of the office, but when experts measure team output they often find that co-located groups accomplish more. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University claim to have found that “[c]lose proximity improves productivity in all cases,” for instance.
What’s behind this seeming contradiction? It’s not hard to guess that working away from others is great for concentration, while working together aids information sharing and encourages team members to trust and help each other -- as well as distract each other. So if you’re team is set up remotely for whatever reason, how can you get the benefits of remote work and mitigate these weaknesses?
To find out we talked to Walter Chen, CEO of iDoneThis, makers of a communication tool to help remote teams and a remote company itself, about what he’s learned about transforming remote working’s drawbacks into strengths. He offered three suggestions.
Common ground is important, Chen explains, because "when you share common ground, you’re able to coordinate implicitly, rather than explicitly. That means that the need for explicit communication and coordination -- the benefits you get from being on a co-located team -- diminish significantly." Or, to put it another way, you don’t have to say out loud every little thing -- your coworkers just get it.
So how can you build common ground if you’re not one cubicle over? "Find a way to make sure your team gets on the same page regularly, such as frequently talking about goals and objectives and making work visible," suggests Chen.
Members of co-located teams benefit from having colleagues closeby when they need help. If you’re co-worker is time zones away, asking for assistance can be far trickier, but Chen insists there are ways to virtually recreate the feeling of having teammates willing to jump in to help, citing two highly successful remote companies.
"At Buffer, employees bring to the table a willingness, even eagerness, to be consciously at-hand exactly because they are remote. They’ll go out of their way to connect, help each other, and proactively make themselves available. They put processes in place, such as having weekly one-on-ones with another co-worker and sharing their personal self-improvement goals throughout the team," he says.
The right tools can also help: "At Zapier, the team uses tools like Sqwiggle to be at-hand. Sqwiggle is an always-on video chat for remote teams to get the sense that they’re working next to each other throughout the day. Instead of providing a constant video stream, which would be distracting, Sqwiggle disables audio and sends pictures of your teammates every few seconds. When you want to virtually tap someone on the shoulder to talk about an issue, or ask how things are going, you just click to activate the video feed."
Sgwiggle is far from the only tool you’re likely to need if you’re building a remote team. Chen believes managers of distributed teams should embrace their need for tech as a benefit of the work style. "Distributed teams must deal with the challenge of communication head-on, because they’re never going to get off the ground otherwise. So they are forced to put in extra and intentional efforts to ensure that they’re communicating well. The surprising thing is that this can flip what would have been a major weakness into a serious strength," says Chen.
That generally means not leaning on a single tool. "When a team works virtually, it loses the power of shared physical space and the communication that naturally flows from it. Instead, technology becomes that shared space. In using a number of different tools, virtual teams mimic the variation in physical space in offices in order to facilitate their various relationships and interactions,” he says, offering an example. "At LKR Social Media they use Yammer for water cooler conversation, iDoneThis to keep everyone in the loop on work status, Google Hangout for video conferencing, Skype for one-on-one calls, PB Works as an internal Wiki, and Wrike for structured conversation about projects."
The takeaway for owners looking to run remote is to "experiment and implement a variety tools that suit your team’s needs to find what combination works best, and make sure you get input from your team on what they think is helpful or not."