Sandy Pentland from the MIT supports the view that it requires more effort to reach high performance when teams are not able to communicate with each other face-to-face. In his study of 2,500 individual team-members, he set out to investigate why some teams consistently deliver a higher performance than others. What he found was that the most important predictor of a team’s success is its communication patterns, over and above their intelligence and talent. According to the study, high performing teams communicate face-to-face, team members face one another, everyone talks and listens in roughly equal measure and their conversations and gestures are energetic. The study further shows that phone or videoconference is the next most valuable form of communication after face-to-face, but less so as more people participate in the call or conference. The least valuable forms of communication are e-mail and texting.
Penland’s study is showing us that we need to compensate for the lack of face-to-face interaction in remote teams by ensuring frequent communication between all members via telephone or videoconference. It’s also important that we encourage team members to carry out back channel or side conversations with each other instead of only communicating with the team leader.
Create a presentation about all the team members
The first time I managed a distributed team was in 2004. I was located in London with a few other team members. The client was in New York and the development team in India. As we were working in a fast-paced environment and the team wasn't too big (about 7 people) I found that the best way to catch up and keep the project on track was to have a daily conference call with all team members at 1pm in London, which was 8am in NYC and 6pm in India.
But how do we encourage team members to communicate more with each other outside of the main conference calls if they have never even met in person? One of the things I did with great success was to create a PowerPoint presentation that included a picture and a short description of each team member and what they liked to do in their spare time. On one project the presentation had pictures and descriptions of over 30 people across two locations in Europe, three locations in India and one location in the US. The presentation generated a lot of excitement, not just across the project team, but also for the client. As a result there was a much better sense of connection and camaraderie between everyone and the communication levels improved significantly.
Show that remote team members matter to you
Let’s hear what other project leaders have to say about remote teams. Paul Chapman is an experienced programme director in financial services. He says: “If you work with a remote team, try to visit them in person. This is not always easy but nothing beats face-to-face interaction. Also identify a local leader that you can rely on to help you with issues and build a strong relationship with them. Occasionally I like to run a meeting with a remote team that is in a significantly different time zone at a time that is convenient for them and inconvenient for me. (Note that I make sure very carefully to only inconvenience myself and not other members of my team.) For example, if working with a team in Singapore, I might occasionally hold a 6am meeting with them rather than asking them to stay back to 7pm. You don’t have to do this very often to send out a powerful message that they matter to you and you acknowledge the sacrifices they make to work in a global team.”
What’s different about running project teams remotely?
Peter Taylor, the author of the Lazy Project manager and head of a global PMO also has a view on how remote project teams are different. Peter says: “In a virtual situation a lot of the power issues that otherwise arise during the ‘storming’ phase can be hidden, so as the leader you almost have to force the matter. If at all possible, make the investment in a “hothouse” face-to-face meeting. By this I mean an intensive, almost 24/7 5-day team experience. Make the business case that this is an investment that will pay off. And by 24/7 I mean not just work but social activities as well, dinners with the team members, activities that bring people together and that are fun and visits to local sights and events. At dinners why not let the team organize the evening plans, what food to get and where to go? Let them work together and learn in simple ways. Based in the individual’s personal ambitions and likes you can bond the group by agreeing goals for each team member that the group can follow, maybe train for a sporting event, visit somewhere special, or write an article for a magazine – it doesn’t matter what it is just that the team have some insight in to each other’s lives. If this is financially impossible, then you may just have to accept that the ‘storming’ phase will be longer than usual.
Once the team is up and running, what do you do to maintain the virtual team spirit when you can’t just head off to the pub for a beer or two? One technique I have used is to rotate the team calls. Don’t take the lead each time yourself, hand it over to a team member to take some time to share what they have personally been doing in the past week. There is nothing worse than a conference call that is just a one way piece of communication and you wonder if anyone is actually listening. By allowing the team members to regularly lead the call their interest and interaction should increase significantly. Each week on the team calls, you can also get one or two to share hobbies or something unusual that they do outside of work hours. Making new connections with common hobbies help bond a team.”
Paul Chapman and Peter Taylor are part of 25 project leaders who have contributed to Susanne's book, The Power of Project Leadership.
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