What's the difference between a remote team that performs like a happy, cohesive unit and one that performs poorly?

Tsedal Neeley, associate professor at Harvard Business School and founder of consulting firm Global Matters, has focused on this subject--bridging social and emotional distances for geographically dispersed teams--for more than 15 years. 

In a recently released article in the Harvard Business Review, Neeley shared a proven framework that has helped leaders manage long-distance employee relationships. The framework, which has five components, is called SPLIT: structure, process, language, identity, and technology. Here's a primer on the framework, along with some insight from Neeley, who recently spoke with Inc. about it.

Structure, and the perception of power.

Employees at headquarters often feel as if remote employees don't do their fair share. Remote workers often feel as if they are ignored. These may seem like sweeping generalizations, but Neeley has found that they occur consistently. The question is, how do you correct them? Neeley recommends leaders reinforce three key messages: 

Who we are. Emphasize that the team is a single entity, regardless of locational, cultural, or individual differences. You don't have to reinvent the wheel. Tariq, a 33-year-old leader in a global firm Neeley studied, improved the performance of a 68-person division, aged 22 to 61, whose members came from 27 countries. How'd he do it? By introducing a team motto ("We are different yet one"), creating opportunities for employees to discuss their cultures, and instituting a zero-tolerance policy for cultural insensitivity.

What we do. Remind teammates of their common goals. When speaking to individuals, highlight how their roles fit within the overall picture. When speaking to the entire team, explain how the team's collective performance corresponds to big-picture goals.

I am there for you. Remote employees require frequent contact. It should be a mixture of serious work-related topics and lighter fare. One manager in Dallas whom Neeley studied inherited a large group in India through an acquisition. "He made it a point to involve those employees in important decisions, contact them frequently to discuss ongoing projects, and thank them for good work," she writes. "He even called team members personally to give them their birthdays off."

Process, and the importance of empathy.

In the absence of water coolers to stand around--and the casual chatter that's second nature to workers sharing an office--leaders of dispersed teams need to build "deliberate moments" of interaction. These moments can help your team feel as if you grasp where they're coming from. Here are three ways to do it: 

Feedback on routine interactions. If you're the sort of manager who only deals with her inbox once a day, you may be unwittingly alienating virtual teammates in a different time zone. The habit that makes your day more efficient could make an employee across the sea feel as if she always has to wait 24 hours for answers. 

Unstructured time. When planning call-in meetings, factor in five minutes for light conversation and small talk. Initiate informal discussions that allow dispersed team members to get to know each other.

Time to disagree. Encouraging your team to disagree with you about anything is the first step. Solicit each team member's views on whatever you discuss, starting with those with the least status in the group.

Language, and the fluency gap.

In global teams, there's a constant risk that those who don't speak the prevailing language will not speak up as often as they need to. (And that those comfortable with the language will speak too quickly and too often.) Neeley offers three rules of engagement:

Dial down dominance. In addition to speaking more slowly, strong speakers should use fewer idioms and cultural references. You use more of them than you think. "The biggest category [of overused idioms] is sports," says Neeley. "Baseball analogies. People often have no idea what you mean by 'first base' or 'home run,'" she says. "It's alienating."

Dial up engagement. Make sure less-fluent speakers are contributing. You can even set goals for the number of comments they make at each meeting. Encourage them to err on the side of asking if others understand what they're saying. Likewise, make them feel comfortable asking in the moment if they have not understood what someone else is saying.

Balance participation to ensure inclusion. Pay attention to who is and isn't speaking--and solicit participation from whoever isn't saying anything. You don't have to call anyone out, per se. Neeley suggests using a line like, "I really want to get a sense of how everyone else is feeling," so it's clear you're seeking an all-inclusive participation, rather than trying to embarrass someone who is shy.

Identity, and the mismatch of perceptions.

Someone in North America who looks you right in the eye projects confidence. Elsewhere in of the world, eye contact might be perceived as rude. Here's how leaders can learn to avoid these potential misperceptions.

Learning from one another. Don't leap to conclusions about what someone's body language or behavior might mean. Observe them for a while. Ask clarifying questions. Ask often enough so that the employee feels secure in your level of two-way communication.

For instance, Neeley writes about a manager named Daniel. One of his employees, Theo, a member of the Israeli team, regularly interrupted Angela, a member of the Buenos Aires team. Their ideas were at odds. Although tempted to intervene, Daniel held back. Instead of leaping to the conclusion that the conflict between Theo and Angela was personal or unprofessional, he waited.

When the meeting was over, he asked Theo and Angela if they felt their perspectives were understood. As it turned out, Theo and Angela were cool with each other: Six months earlier, they'd collaborated on another project and learned each other's communication style. "It showed that conflict does not have to create social distance," Neeley writes.

Technology, and the connection challenge.

Ask yourself the following question before deciding whether to communicate by synchronous (phone, chat, Skype) or asynchronous (email, social media) technology. Is what I'm saying instant and urgent, or can it wait? Remember that for global teams, the lags of asynchronous communication can be more pronounced because of time zones.

If you just want to share non-urgent information, email is the best bet. It's not disruptive and, for most employees in 2015, it signals that an issue is not super urgent.

It's also helpful to mix synchronous and asynchronous technology to reinforce your message. Neeley writes about Greg, a project manager in a medical devices organization who found his team falling behind on a project. He called an emergency meeting. He listened to employee concerns in real time. That was synchronous. He followed up with an email, reiterating the meeting's key points and asking for everyone's electronic sign-off. That was asynchronous.

"This redundant communication helped reinforce acceptance of his ideas," writes Neeley, "and increased the likelihood that his colleagues would actually implement the new protocols."

Published on: Sep 17, 2015