Running Distributed Teams: A Human Connection Is Vital

Cultural differences
Internal Communication
Building a Team
Leadership
Remote

2 March, 2020

Herman Man, CPO at BlueVine, explains the importance of developing a human connection with your teams, no matter where they are in the world.

Problem

In my career, I have worked with many distributed teams. When I was at Xero, I had teams between San Francisco, Australia, and New Zealand. When I was with Microsoft, I had teams all over the world. And now, I have teams in the Bay Area, and Israel.

Whether teams are within the U.S. or multiple countries, the main problem will always be ensuring that everything is cohesive and that the teams are working together independently and interdependently.

Communication and cultural differences are significant factors to consider when building effective teams. To avoid any disconnects or miscommunications, here are some questions to consider when defining the more significant problems:

  • How do you keep everybody on the same page?
  • How do you keep everybody motivated?
  • How do you structure everything so the teams are working towards the same goal, but they prioritize their tasks so that they can run independently?

Actions taken

At the end of the day, this boils down to communication. It's the hub of everything.

The advent of video calling has improved the way we can connect with your colleagues. Video calling makes it two dimensional. Not only do you get their voice and the expression, but you also get to see them, which is a significant part of communication and an improvement over the classic phone call.

Despite the value that video calling provides, it still does not substitute meeting someone in person. As it relates to work, you're usually meeting someone for the first time in a work setting. Even if it is not the first meeting, you'll most likely interact with a co-worker only about work during that call.

However, when you're meeting someone face to face, you connect much deeper with that person. This kind of meeting and interaction helps build a vital connection and will help you understand who they are as a person while assisting them in understanding you.

Given the importance of building human connections with my team, I am very intentional with my time and how I spend that time with all of my various teams. For example, I fly out to each location at least once a quarter. We get to see each other in person, and it allows me to start building or continue nurturing trust and relationships.

In addition to building connections with my teams, I make sure that everyone is crystal clear on how and when to communicate. Different time zones can make things challenging, so I want to make sure it was fair for everyone. For instance, Israel would always be calling U.S. hours, and sometimes they'd have to work until 11:00 p.m. It is essential to account for that to ensure everyone is happy and having their needs met.

The last thing I do to keep my distributed teams in sync is to ensure they are aligned on prioritization and goals.

Sometimes this means over-communicating precisely what needs to get done amongst everyone. This consistency should keep everyone fully aligned and on the same page. That means anything from micro-interactions in our emails to constant and consistent reminders of everyone's goals through to larger quarterly plans. These reminders help everyone understand the why, the how, the when, and the what.

If you can't meet up with a team in person, you should still try to find a way to get to know the person better. If you have any shared interests or know about blogs they follow, this can give you some insight into how they interpret data or how you can best communicate with them. Even building a virtual relationship gives you a better understanding of that person, which can be invaluable.

Lessons learned

When you cater to your teams and develop a powerful synergy, a lot of advantageous things can happen. I've realized that the upfront investment in developing an authentic and honest relationship with someone will pay huge dividends down the road. It improves communication, team dynamics, and long-term success with future ventures.

This perspective is very different than when I first started my career 20 years ago. I thought networking and relationship building was a waste of time. I believed I should keep my head down and get my work done.

Despite the perspective I held at the beginning of my career, I now make sure to spend the necessary time to build those relationships. It builds trust, motivates the teams, and it will likely eliminate all sorts of miscommunication down the road. When you understand one another that much better, it makes for a much more efficient and effective working relationship.


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