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Encouraging Collaboration in a Distributed Team Environment

They say that leading a team is similar to conducting an orchestra; with a lot of practice and attention, you can get everyone to play the same tune. But what do you do if the orchestra members are not only in different rooms, but on different continents? How do you get your team to perform a symphony when some members are playing while others are asleep? And how can you expect to get everyone on the same page when even something as simple as ensuring a time-sensitive email is read and actioned can pose a logistical challenge? It can seem daunting to work in a distributed team environment, both as a manager and as an individual team member. While managers are responsible for the overall efficiency of the team, individual contributors have to handle multiple tightrope acts each day in order to do their job effectively. And when you don’t have the luxury of stopping by someone’s desk to ask for a deliverable or a quick chat about the status of a project, it becomes all the more nerve-wracking trying to make sure that everything is in order. Fortunately, recent research has shown that leading or participating in a distributed team environment isn’t too different from working in a collocated team.

Virtual distance is comprised of three key components....

In a 2004 study, Karen Sobel-Lojeski coined the concept of “virtual distance” to help us understand how teams operate. Virtual distance is comprised of three key components: physical distance, operational distance and affinity distance. Physical distance is, of course, the physical space that exists between team members; operational distance refers to the quantity and quality of communication between team members; and affinity distance is defined as the level of community and shared goals the team members feel.

Physical Distance

Sobel-Lojeski found in her study that by addressing (and, in some cases, reducing) the three factors that comprise virtual distance, innovation can improve by up to 90%. All of this is to say, just because you’re not sitting in the same office doesn’t mean you can’t find success as a team. Of course, short of moving everybody to the same office, there’s no way to improve the physical distance between team members, so we’ll focus on the other two areas.

Improving Operational Distance by Being Present and by Communicating Clearly

You can help improve the operational distance of the team by doing two things: being present and by communicating clearly. In this case, presence is less about your physical location and more about how other team members view you. Being fully present means making sure you exhibit the right amount of four qualities: energy, credibility, consistency and authenticity. By harnessing these qualities either as an individual or as a manager, you’ll find that other team members will feel comfortable initiating requests or assigning tasks, for two reasons: First, by being credible and consistent, other team members will be able to trust that their requests will be handled competently and correctly, which reduces their stress. Second, studies have shown that people tend to work harder and more efficiently if the work is for someone they like and respect. So if each team member displays energy and authenticity when working with one another, even if they’ve never physically met, reaching out becomes more of a pleasure than a pain. The second aspect of operational distance is learning to communicate clearly what is needed, how it should be approached and by when it should be handled, team members can trust that their counterparts in different regions will do what needs to be done. It also helps to view the remote nature of the team as a positive rather than a hindrance, especially if the team is in different time zones: Depending on how many team members and different locations you have, you can benefit from practically 24-hour coverage; this ensures that someone will always be available to address any urgent tasks, and as a result, everyone’s life gets a little less stressful.

To Improve Affinity Distance Team Members Need to Create a Shared Identity

Improving the affinity distance is a bit trickier, but certainly not impossible. With a lot of distributed teams, there is a tendency for individual team members to trick themselves into thinking that the particular task they’re working on is specific only to them and separate from what everyone else is doing. In order to improve affinity distance, team members need to create what’s known as a “shared identity”; in short, members have to believe that their individual tasks are a part of the larger collective goal, rather than thinking of their workload as its own entity. People have a natural spirit of collaboration, so once the shared identity is created, team members will naturally stick to it; the only tricky part is establishing it at first, especially with a team whose members are used to approaching their tasks as if they exist in a vacuum. Affinity distance is much harder to address without first improving the operational distance of the team; if the team hasn’t reduced the operational distance between its members, it’s less likely to work toward a shared goal. But if the team members are not only comfortable but happy working with one another, a sense of unity and teamwork will naturally emerge.

It all comes down to trust

One final component that you should always consider when managing or working in a distributed team structure is trust. Whether they are seated in the same cluster of desks or spread out across the globe, team members have to trust that their counterparts are able to do whatever needs to be done correctly and efficiently. A lack of trust can have a lot of negative consequences: for example, team members in one time zone checking their email at 2 AM because they don’t trust that their counterparts in another time zone will handle any issues effectively, or team members forming location-based “cliques” where they collectively blame another location for any shortcomings in their work. If you focus on improving the operational and affinity distance between team members, that trust will be formed. By focusing on these areas, you’ll find yourself either managing or participating in a team that can address any problem, anywhere, anytime.