Successful collaboration requires trust.
It’s hard enough to establish a bond of trust when someone works in the same room as you. This challenge becomes exponentially more difficult when you have teams collaborating from multiple locations. Throw in a few different time-zones, some cultural differences, and a language barrier ... and improving collaboration between departments becomes quite a challenge. But there’s no reason to despair. Most people want to work well together. Sometimes the distance just makes it difficult.
How to improve collaboration between departments, for teams everywhere
Here at Targetprocess, we have teams working all over the world. Most of the time that’s a great thing. When teams collaborate we’re able to apply a global perspective to our work. However, the distance does create some obstacles.
All remote teams face at least some of the same issues. Fortunately, these obstacles can help your team grow if you tackle them appropriately. Here are 11 ways to deal with problems created by working in different locations
1. Video conferencing is best for cross-collaboration
It is often more productive to have a short video or phone call with a colleague than it is to go back and forth in a chat window for 10 minutes (especially if there’s a disagreement about something). Communicating through video allows you see the subtle emotions and facial expressions which you might otherwise miss. Text-based communication lacks the full context of a face-to-face conversation.
Picking the right tools is essential for productive meetings as well. Equipment like Lifesize, a combination of hardware and software designed for a variety of conference rooms, works well for large team meetings, whereas software like GoToMeeting may be more appropriate for smaller teams.
At the same time, if there is something that can be accomplished with a simple email that should be the first step. Nobody wants to spend more time in meetings than they have too.
2. Mind the time zone
It seems basic, but keeping track of time zones is one of the most consistent issues for distributed teams. Whenever you ask for feedback, set up a meeting, or send over some requested work, consider what time zone your colleagues are in and how it could potentially affect their response or next action.
This is especially important if you’re a habitual procrastinator. You’ll have less time to do things at the last minute if you wake up at the end of your colleague's work-day.
Some other things to keep in mind:
- Trying to keep track of meetings and appointments without a digital aid will inevitably lead to disaster. An online calendar that can track them and notify you is a big help. If your whole team is in the same system you can view each other’s internal availability with ease.
- Be polite about non-urgent communications outside of business hours. It seems like hardly anybody works regular hours these days, but it’s important to be mindful about what time it is when you contact colleagues. A clear and automatic system that indicates when you’re available outside of regular business hours helps with this.
3. Broaden your discussions
A key element of collaboration is friendship. The ability to chat about the news at lunch, or to bounce ideas back and forth with your desk neighbor provides a huge amount of mental stimulation and gives you a wider perspective for your daily work. It’s impossible to completely replicate an office environment, but you can get pretty close by discussing new movies, music, current events, and even family life. Did you recently get a cute new puppy? Bring her in for your next cross-office video meeting! She can have a temporary position as your Chief Happiness Officer.
Recognize and share cultural differences you might have with your team members, while keeping in mind the need to be sensitive to the variety in sense of humor across cultures. It can be quite interesting to see your colleagues' social media posts of cities, neighborhoods, and parks all over the world.
If you find yourself with only work to discuss, remember everyone can appreciate a funny meme or Youtube video. Encourage the practice of sharing these things across offices (just don’t let this practice turn into procrastination).
4. Use a real-time work management solution
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that we use Targetprocess to manage our work. All of our teams and departments are in the system, so everything can be managed and viewed from a central place. All data is displayed in real-time, and integrations with email and Slack make communication a breeze.
Transparency is the goal. If many of your boards are private and only accessible to managers or the assigned teams, then a lot of the power of your management tool will remain untapped. The important information should be accessible to everyone.
If you’re collaborating with someone outside of your organization (such as stakeholders or customers), find a way to share real-time information from your management solution. At Targetprocess, we use Share View for this.
5. Standardize your work storage and communication practices
You’ll want a “filing system” that everyone understands and knows where to put new things, where to find old things, and how to properly catalog items. Ideally, your work management solution should satisfy this requirement, but it doesn’t hurt to actively manage your company’s additional storage areas (e.g. Google Drive).
Those storage areas will help you establish a consistent, central place to document meetings and important decisions. Make sure this is a real-time source, so you don’t have to worry about managing multiple versions of information.
Some other best practices include:
- Try to stick to a common language, even if you’re having a private one-on-one chat. After all, you might have to copy text over to a public channel. If you’re talking on the phone in a different language than your local colleagues are used to, try to have the conversation in private to avoid distracting anyone.
- Beware of document deprecation. There are few things more frustrating and wasteful than hunting for a specific document, and working on it for hours, only to discover the document is obsolete and the current version is in a different folder entirely. Avoid creating multiple versions of documents. If you do have multiple versions, make sure you label them correctly and delete/archive any obsolete items.
- Understand what medium of internal communication is best for your current objective. Need an answer from a colleague for a yes or no question? Send them a message in your internal chat. Need a comprehensive report on the results of last week's company meeting? Send your request in an email.
6. Borrow team members for meetings and projects
If your sales teams in Europe and North America are having a remote meeting, bring in a developer from both locations. The intersection of different teams from different locations will help to facilitate better understanding between offices and departments.
If your marketing team is working on a new campaign, bring in someone from QA to give feedback. They might bring in a new perspective that you hadn’t even considered. Worst case scenario: they go back to the QA team with a better understanding of what marketing does all day, and they share this knowledge with their team.
7. Leverage social media
Social media is a great tool for publicizing your product and building your brand, but nobody wants to be on a platform that’s just filled with marketers and bots sending tracked links to each other. The purpose of social media is to connect. If your team feels comfortable connecting with the company brand on social media, it will make it easier for them to organically connect with customers on the same platforms.
Encourage everyone to lose their fear of social media. Active and fearless posting from your teams will help to unite your company across offices, as well as display a great example of your company to your followers and customers.
A company Instagram is a great place to post pictures of your office, of your team eating lunch together, your company picnic, or even your employee pets. This might be one of the only opportunities your teams may have to explore the lives of their colleagues. An Instagram can be good for your brand, but it can also be great for your company’s sense of community.
Our teams meet at the cabin — from the Targetprocess Instagram
Your marketing team doesn’t have to handle all of your social media tasks. Encourage your teams to create Pinterest boards to share their hobbies and interests. It’s generally better for these things to be work-related, but it’s also good to step outside of the box from time to time.
You may have to take the initiative to get these internal social campaigns started, but they can be a great morale booster if the idea takes hold. It will also help to drive engagement on company posts; your employees are one of the greatest assets you have for increasing this metric.
8. Everyone should feel like part of the team
Try to imagine what team members outside of the room are thinking and feeling. If remote colleagues aren’t participating as much in your meetings, they might be feeling left out, or perhaps it’s the end of the work-day in their time zone, and they’ve already checked out. If meetings are happening at the same time every week, make sure they are at a reasonable time for everyone. For example, just because your Australian office is small doesn’t mean that they should be the ones to wake up at a crazy early time to catch meetings.
And when it comes to setting up those remote meetings, make certain that everyone can hear and see everybody else. Something as simple as optimizing the angle of the camera for a video conference to make sure everyone is on screen goes a long way toward reducing the feelings of isolation that can come with attending a meeting remotely.
9. Meet in person
Meeting your colleagues face-to-face can have an incredible effect on improving cross c when working remotely. Meeting someone in person adds a whole new layer of depth to a working relationship. You might discover shared interests and common points of view. Trips across the ocean can’t happen too often, but if it can be managed there is a real benefit.
10. Organize team presentations
Have your teams put together regular presentations where they can discuss what they do for your organization. Asking one team member per month to write a personal bio about how they came to work for your organization, their strengths, skills they would like to develop, and a little bit about their personal life and hobbies can bring everyone closer. This could even be a jumping board into publishing employee bios on your organization’s blog to help humanize your company to customers.
11. Do you know how your team feels about cross-collaboration between offices?
If communication is breaking down somewhere, it can be helpful to ask your teams to consider what the problem might be directly. Sending out an optional survey to "take your teams' temperature" and identify any common problems is one way to discover any issues. Holding a focus group with team leaders from each office or department to brainstorm some ways to simplify, improve, or even automate communication across offices and departments is another.
Also, consider taking a look at the efficacy of your internal company chat. You may decide that you need to archive some excess channels, or maybe add some new ones to reflect your current strategy.
Improving cross-office collaboration is all about experimentation
It’s OK to try new things. Most changes will at least have a positive short-term effect on your teams, especially if the idea came from within. Don't be afraid to try out a new strategy.
In the end, there’s no one way to improve cross-office collaboration. Everything eventually comes down to trust. Do you trust your colleagues to treat you with respect? Do you trust that your remote workers aren’t just lounging in a pool somewhere? Do you trust everyone to work responsibly and select work items that will benefit the organization? With a little bit of planning and some team building tools there isn’t any reason to worry about having your team spread out across the world.
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