How to Ensure Team Coherence When Working Remotely
20 January, 2021
Years ago, long before remote working and Zoom Meetings were the norm, I was working at a large multinational with offices around the world. My team consisted of five units dispersed at five locations with five autonomous offices stretching from China to the West Coast, US. The people lumped together into this new team had never worked together before. Each of them would work on and complete their own fragmented piece of the project, then another team in another time zone would pick it up the next day but would often find it worthless and unable to continue.
On an individual level, things were fairly well set up, but we were not putting things together as we should as a team. The situation resembled a fable of an elephant and five blind men. No one was willing to take the lead on piecing all different things together. Simply, there was no cohesion and time zone differences were not doing us any good. We had a clear six months plan broken down into six weeks. The problem was that everyone knew what the six months plan was but not what to do within the next six weeks. People were doing what they thought was the best thing to do at that moment. In addition, encouraging autonomy and independence of every site swung in the very opposite direction.
It took me a while to understand that working across these disparate time zones would take its toll. Due to our locations, my colleague from Finland and I were stuck in the middle of the time zone overlap. We couldn’t get together with everyone on the same phone call because of the stretched-out time zones, and we took on ourselves to be “liaison officers” and communicate -- and over-communicate -- with people from other sites from China to the US.
The email was a default mean of communication at that time, but its delayed nature between the transmission and reception was not useful for our line of work. One team would complete something, call it a day, and the next team wouldn’t be able to pick up from there because that was not what they needed. That would go day after day, ad infinitum.
Two of us were in the middle, passing the baton from a team in China to teams in the UK and US. By the time my counterpart from Finland would arrive at work, I would be able to update them on what was going on before that day. The communication would usually go through email or phone, and video conferencing would require to book a virtual conference room weeks in advance. While it may look like a communication overhead, every single second was worth it. I understood that the only way out was to over-communicate, even if that was significantly slowing me down. I was spending three to four hours daily on calls with other teams. It helped the teams settle down, better understand each other and finally, head toward the same direction. However, this took much longer than expected. Those were the people who never worked together before, there was no shared culture, and every person had their own perspective of what needed to be done.
While my communication efforts helped enormously, there was still a lack of cohesion. Though I was not aware of it instantly, in hindsight, I realized that there was too much autonomy that inevitably led to fragmentation. I had to coordinate all those different activities and jump in, becoming de facto a lead. I had to do it mindfully because it was a group of peers operating within autonomous teams, and everyone was very careful not to step over somebody else’s toes. Everyone was hesitant to say anything that could offend anyone else and that was a taboo we had to break because it was becoming increasingly counter-productive.
Stepping up as a leader helped me to steer things in the right direction. It only took me a couple of weeks to tighten things up. We established a decentralized leadership structure and immediately, it became evident the most of the problems were stemming from the lack of leadership. Simply, someone had to step in and build the scaffolding because having a distributed team of very smart people wouldn’t result in distributed leadership by default.
- Distributed leadership is hard to achieve and it has nothing to do with individual competencies. It is built on a shared culture that requires an intentional and often lasting effort.
- Deliberate overcommunication could be a good thing, but it should last for a certain period of time. Prolonged overcommunication may become annoying and will not be able to justify its time-consuming facet.
- After the release, we all met at an offsite in Finland and had an opportunity to discuss what we would do differently. Surprisingly, everyone initially thought that everyone else had no idea what they were doing. That included me. I was not aware of to which extent focus and energy level could be different for people in different time zones.
- Language difference shouldn’t be underestimated. Though all fluent in English, different accents were sometimes hard to follow, especially in phone conversations and that meant additional communication effort had to be put in.
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