Successful collaboration requires trust. It’s hard enough to establish that 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 timezones, some cultural differences, and language barrier... and you have one hell of a challenge on your hands. Don’t despair though. Most people want to work well together. Sometimes, the distance just makes it difficult.
A team is not a group of people who work together. A team is a group of people who trust each other.
— Simon Sinek (@simonsinek) August 6, 2012
Here at Targetprocess, we have teams working all over the world. Most of the time, that’s a great thing. When teams collaborate, we are able to apply a global perspective to our work. However, the distance does create some obstacles. These obstacles help your teams to grow, but only if you tackle them appropriately. After 10 years of collaborating across oceans and timezones, we have some pretty good ideas on how to attack the problems that can be caused by working in different locations.
Video > Chat
- It’s better to have a short video or phone call with a colleague than to go back and forth in your internal chat 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 have otherwise missed. Text-based communication lacks the full context of face-to-face conversation.
- Careful though: don’t schedule meetings for things that could be accomplished with a simple email (or, better yet, a comment on a work item in Targetprocess)
- Make sure you have solid equipment for video chats, and that you pick the right tool for your situation. For example: Lifesize is much better than Skype for large group meetings. For smaller meetings, we use GoToMeeting.
- Some companies have experimented with putting up live televisions in all of their offices. This won't be practical for everyone, and could even be invasive for some, but it's nice having the option to see the rest of your teams. You could experiment with this during retrospectives, or even during co-scheduled company parties.
Mind the timezone
- It seems like a basic rule, but it’s one of the most consistent issues for distributed teams. Whenever you ask for feedback, set up a meeting, plan when you’ll be able to send over some requested work, etc., make sure you pay attention to what timezone your colleagues are in and how it could potentially affect their response or next action.
- If you’re a habitual procrastinator, be extra-mindful of this step. 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.
- Trying to keep track of meetings and appointments without a digital aid will inevitably lead to disaster. Use an online calendar that can think about those kind of things for you. We use ScheduleOnce to help our C-level employees and Sales team set up and keep track of meetings. Customers and leads can automatically check their availability and request a meeting. All of our employees are on Google Calendar (ScheduleOnce integrates with Google Calendar), so we can all 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.
- Have a clear and automatic system for indicating when/if you’re available outside of regular business hours. Slack handles this for us: when someone is active on Slack, the dot next to their name turns green. This dot can be deactivated if you’re online but not available, and you can even add a time-dependent “Zzz” to indicate times that you’d prefer to not be disturbed.
Broaden your discussions
- A key element of collaboration is friendship. I know, this sounds lame, but it’s inescapably true. 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 the closeness of an office environment, but you can get pretty close by discussing new movies, music, current events (it’s probably best to stay away from politics though), and even family life. For example: 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 any cultural differences you might have with team members. For myself: it's been quite interesting to see my colleagues' social media posts of cities, neighborhoods, and parks all over the world.
- Everyone can appreciate a funny meme or Youtube video. Encourage the practice of sharing these things across offices (but don’t let this practice turn into procrastination).
Use a real-time work management solution
- Obviously, 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 important here. 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. Make sure that important information is 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 the Share View mashup for this.
Standardize your work storage and communication practices
- Make sure everyone understands your organization’s “filing system” and knows where to put new things, where to find old things, and how to properly catalogue items. Ideally, your work management solution should satisfy this requirement, but it’s still wise to actively manage your company’s additional storage areas (e.g. Google Drive).
- Establish a consistent, central place to document meetings and important decisions. Make sure this a real-time source, so you don’t have to worry about managing multiple versions of information. Your work management solution should ideally be able to manage this activity as well.
- 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’s few things more frustrating and wasteful than hunting for a specific document, doing work based on the information inside of it, only to discover that the document is obsolete and the current version is in a different folder that you didn’t even think to look through. 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. Need to kick off a new marketing campaign, or get detailed help on a work item? Create an entity in Targetprocess and tag your colleague so they receive a concise email notification.
- Establish automated communication for regular updates. For example: we have a bot in one of our Slack channels that lets us know when builds are being pushed to servers.
Borrow team members for meetings and projects
- This one is simple enough. 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. Two birds, one stone.
- 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.
Leverage social media
- Many companies seem to have lost the original idea behind social media. It’s 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 (just look at the steady decline of Twitter). The purpose of social media is to connect. Connecting with your employees on social media will help you establish better connections with your customers.
- 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.
- If you haven’t already, create a company Instagram. Don’t just recycle your Twitter posts into this platform; 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.
- 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.
Never stop paying attention to presence disparity
- 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 timezone, and they’ve already checked out. You have to think about these things with a critical mind at all times.
- Avoid consistently “short-sticking” anybody. For example: just because your Australian office is small doesn’t mean that they should be the ones to wake up at an obscene time to catch meetings.
- Working remotely is great, but it can get lonely. Even worse, it can be technically isolating. If you don’t have solid communication practices built up at your company, you run the risk of leaving your remote workers with an information gap that will impede them from performing their jobs.
- Before every meeting, make certain that everyone can hear and see everybody else. Work with the equipment you have to reduce the feelings of isolation that can come with attending a meeting remotely.
Meet in person
- This won’t always be a feasible option, but if you can afford the time and travel cost, meeting your colleagues face-to-face can have an incredible effect on how well you are able to collaborate 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 pain points.
- When a new team member joins Targetprocess, we try to allocate some budget to allow everyone to get to know each other. In general, it’s good to exchange people between offices for 2-4 weeks every 1-2 years.
- Trips across the ocean can’t happen too often, but at the very least, we will organize some initial cross-office interaction between teams on the same continent.
Organize team presentations
- Have your teams put together regular presentations where they can discuss what they do for your organization.
- Have one team member per month write a personal bio about how they came to work for your organization, what their strong points/weak points, and a little bit about their personal life and hobbies. This could even be a jumping board into publishing employee bios on your organization’s blog to help humanize your company to customers.
Find out how your teams feel about communication between offices
- Send out an optional survey to "take your teams' temperature" and identify any common problems.
- Hold a focus group with team leaders from each office or department. Come up with some ways to simplify, improve, or even automate communication across offices and departments.
- Gauge the efficacy of your internal company chat. Decide if you need to archive some excess channels, or maybe add some new ones to reflect your current strategy.
- 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 honestly no easy 12-step program to achieving better 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? If the answer to any of these questions is no, you might want to take a broader look at your company’s culture, hiring process, and overall goals to see what is going wrong and what you can do to improve. In a successful culture, trust will automatically breed responsibility and independence.