This post was written for Startup Edition in response to the question: How do you effectively work with remote teams?
If you aren’t already, it’s only a matter of time before you’ll be asked to consider working with a remote team. For most startups, this comes in the form of offshore engineers and more common recently designers. But it can include much more than that. At my last company, 2 members of our 5-person management team were remote. And companies like Balsamiq and Automatic are 100% virtual.
This trend is growing. Remote teams are quickly becoming the norm. Far too often, companies focus on the benefits of remote teams and don’t spend enough time considering the challenges. As founders and product builders, it’s important that we get the most out of our teams.
While I’ve worked with a number of remote teams in my day jobs, I’ve also been fortunate to be immersed in virtual teamwork through my graduate program. For the past 3 years, I’ve engaged with my classmates on some intense team projects, with each of us participating from up to 4 different time zones, with plenty of competing commitments. Here are a few things that I’ve learned along the way.
The Logistics of Working Remotely
It’s pretty easy for us in the tech industry to focus on tools. Most of us live out of Evernote or Google Docs, so using these tools to collaborate with remote coworkers is second nature. But even us digital natives can learn a few things about the logistics of working remotely.
Use video chat. The richness of the media that we use is important. It’s a lot harder to get distracted if you hold your meetings with video chat rather than a voice-only conference line. Without video, it can be hard for people to know how and when to jump into the conversation and it’s a lot easier for the most extroverted or aggressive to dominate the conversation. Video can really change the group dynamic for the better.
People may resist at first, but as soon as they get the hang of it, it makes a big difference. And to avoid sound quality issues, make everyone wear a headset. I prefer Google Hangouts, but Skype works too.
Build Rapport. It can be tempting to just get down to busy. After all, there is no shortage of to-do-list items to complete and everyone has jam-packed calendars. But unlike with your office mates, you and your remote workers miss out on the informal social interactions that happen naturally throughout the day. These are important. They help to build trust and cohesion on the team. So make the effort to include these interactions in your virtual meetings.
Start your meetings with a few minutes of social interaction. Check in with each team member. How are they doing? Don’t just go through the motions. Slow down and engage. This will go a long way toward building team cohesion.
Face-to-face interactions matter. Video technology is good, but it’s not the same as face-to-face interactions. A team can really come together in just a few days of real-world interaction. Be sure to integrate it into your workflow.
You might think that face-to-face interactions with your engineering team in India is cost-prohibitive. After all, the point of working with a remote team is to reduce costs. But if you invest in the travel costs up front, you’ll reap the benefits over the lifetime of the team interactions.
At one of my former companies, we worked with an engineering team in India. We struggled to integrate our two teams. Our US team didn’t think our Indian team was very good. Thee were a number of communication challenges. To help resolve these problems, we had a few members of our Indian team spend 3 weeks in our bay area office and everything changed. It went a long way toward building team cohesion. It was worth every penny.
Share the burden of working across time zones. Too often we put all of the burden on the remote team, asking them to extend their day late into the night or to start way too early in the morning. Working across time zones is hard on everyone, but it’s important to make sure that the whole team is sharing this burden, not just the folks who aren’t based out of headquarters.
Work hard to avoid out of sight out of mind. It’s easy to fall into the habit of treating remote employees like second class citizens. We continue the discussion after we hang up the phone or we make critical decision over lunch. It may not seem like a big deal at the time, after all, it’s convenient. But it relegates your remote workers to second class citizens. It’s demoralizing and it will make your remote workers less effective. Be conscious of this behavior and work to avoid it.
Don’t Ignore Cross-Cultural Differences
It’s not just about the logistics. For many of us, working on virtual teams also means working across cultures. Our headquarters may be based in the United States, our engineers in India, and our designers in Israel. Even if we sort out the logistics, if we don’t acknowledge and address cultural differences in the way we work, we’ll still struggle to work effectively. It’s important to be open about and identify group norms for addressing the following cultural differences:
Independence vs. interdependence. Some cultures like the United States tend to be more focused on the needs of the individual, while others like many Asian cultures prioritize the needs of the group ahead of the individual.
This means that people are going to have different strategies for resolving competing goals and interests when they inevitably occur. Make sure that you address this and establish a norm for each team that you are on.
Hierarchical vs. egalitarian values: We see a lot of variation in corporate culture within the United States, but there’s even more diversity across the world. Some people will think along the lines of the chain of command. Others will treat everyone like peers regardless of whose boss is whose.
This may not seem like a big difference, but it can lead to some pretty big differences when it comes to how knowledge is shared or disagreements are resolved. Again, be sure to take the time to define when hierarchy matters and when it doesn’t.
Direct vs. indirect communication: Here in the United States especially, we like to complain about indirect communication. But others may take offense to our direct style. There’s a time and a place for both, and it’s usually dictated by culture. When your team is diverse, it’s important to be explicit about how and when to communicate what to who.
You might be noticing a theme. When we work on teams dominated by one culture and we share the same office, it’s pretty easy to establish team norms for things like communication style and chain-of-command. But when we meet virtually and we each bring different styles of interaction to the table, things can get pretty confusing pretty fast.
If your team crosses cultural boundaries take the time to explicitly establish group norms. You’ll save a lot of time and energy and become a team much faster.
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All good advice. I have worked with a team in India (last job), and in Beijing (current job), and much of what you say is important.
As a product manager it is a very wise investment to make a trip to your remote office quarterly or semi-annually. They really appreciate it (and they are shocked when you pick up the tab for 15 people for dinner).
Alas, the US team members (developers) often have a bad outlook on their remote colleagues abilities and skills. Partly fear, partly a lack of respect, but I have found that quality people are everywhere, and some of my Indian team members were rock stars.
Thanks for the post!
Teresa Torres says
Agreed on both points. A visit can go a long way to making people feel like they matter. It’s really common for US teams to look down on offshore engineering teams. I think this is a big mistake. Like you say, you can find stars anywhere. It’s really important to make sure that both your domestic team and your overseas team are treated like equals.
Thanks for the comment!
Thanks for the insight on considering cross-cultural differences which can appear even when people aren’t from different parts of the world. I also like how you framed culture as establishing group norms. Nice post!
Teresa Torres says
Thanks, Janet. I appreciate the comment.
Roger Roman says
A fascinating and thought provoking post – thank you.
Perhaps what should also be considered in any US based virtual network is the education of the US participants on the praxis of interdependent, egalitarian and multi-dimensional teams. These values and practices are the only way to create a sustainable international team. Certainly the alternatives of independent, hierarchical and restricted communication cannot.
In the early stages of building the international team establish virtual learning and mentoring sessions in which mutual individual and collective growth occurs.
From experience this is an effective way of ensuring the US based participants realise they are learners too – and not the only teachers, leaders and innovators. Many Americans appear to suffer from the illusion that they, are their ways, are superior to ours (the rest of the world). From the outside this is experienced as arrogance and until it ends there can be no real team.
Teresa Torres says
Roger, great point. I absolutely agree.
Andrea Francis says
Nice article! My biggest slip-up in the past was distinguishing situations that required indirect communication, as I am a pragmatic person who likes to say things plainly. But you learn and try to get right next time. Being fast to apologize and genuine about it always helps. The important thing is not to force people to conform to one path – culture is not like that!