Four Lessons for Successful Dispersed Work Teams

Lynda Starr

There’s a joke, how many people work at the company? About half. Whether working in the headquarters, branch office or telecommuting, human nature stands true. The committed employee will be steadfast while the clock watcher will be waiting to go home. Managing a dispersed workforce requires some guidelines; it is not that different from managing any team—people are people and their needs are the same. Here are four tips on working with and managing dispersed teams.

“What am I supposed to do?”

Regardless of whether a person works in the office or their at-home office, every employee must be subject to the same 4 lessons LSstandards of productivity, excellence and review as commensurate with their position.

All employees need to know when they need to be in the office.  If people are working across time zones, it is important to be respectful of time differences. Do not expect people to be available for email, meetings or any other work outside their regular work hours.  There may also be resentment if workers must stay late or come in early for a meeting when meetings are always scheduled based what is convenient for a specific time zone.  Others may skip the meeting, which hurts productivity and socialization between team members.

For both in-office and remote employees, everyone must know what their responsibilities include.  It is important to describe assignments along with deadlines and expectations of quality in a clear way.  Employees are the most productive when they feel empowered and have ownership of tasks.  After explanation of a task, it is important to let them work through it in their own style.

“We Need to Talk”

It is critical to use Skype, AOL Messenger, Lync or other IM and collaboration tools so that employees can see who else is working and available for communication. IM is also handy for quick communication just like yelling across the office. For long conversations, it is easier to use a voice call to avoid typing long explanations and for better interaction. Despite emoticons, IM does not provide an opportunity to communicate in a non-verbal manner. It also does not offer metadata related to tone or attitude.  “Great” can connote approval or be sarcastic code for disgust; neither of which can be conveyed via IM or email.

“Let’s Meet”

Also in the communication arena is the importance of team meetings to go over tasks and also for socializing.  If everyone works in the same office, there would be the “good morning, how was your weekend chatter” at the water cooler.  Get into the habit of taking a few minutes at the beginning of a team meeting to talk about the ballgame or whatever interests team members.  In this way you can engage in relationship building, camaraderie and trust. Another good way to build rapport is the occasional video tour of each location when communicating on the phone or via IM at a later time.

Please remind workers and follow this advice yourself.   No multitasking on calls.  According to an Intercall study, 82% of people admit to doing other things—from surfing the web to using the bathroom—during team calls. Everyone needs to pay attention and using videoconferencing can discourage side tasks.

 “You got the right stuff, baby”

Let’s be honest. Some people are not suited to work in a dispersed company structure. They may not like to work from home due to distractions or inability to focus.  They may not be able to work independently or know when to reach out for help. They may not like to use IM, which can be intrusive and as mentioned above, hard to decipher what the other person is thinking.  Videoconferences have their own set of rules, which may not appeal to everyone.

The team itself must have the right stuff.  For example, the Ringelmann Effect explains that people tend to prefer work teams of four or, at most, five members. Anything lower than four was too small to be effective, whereas work teams larger than five became ineffective. The Harvard Business Review cites the late Harvard psychology professor Richard Hackman on this topic. He noted that it takes only 10 conversations for every person on a team of five to touch base with everyone else. That number rises to 78 for a team of 13. Thus to optimize your group’s performance, don’t assemble too many players.

Work is a verb not only a noun thus one can work from anyplace. Yet, the key is to create a culture in which all members of the team or staff feel connected. They should feel involved in the all-important traditional keys to management and productivity success. This is what we are striving for at Vantage. We have offices in several locations and many account teams consist of representatives across offices. With email, IM, phone calls, monthly Skype events and social media, we are able to remain connected.

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