Teams with both local and remote members are increasingly commonplace. While few team members or managers prefer to remote employees over local, they hire remotely for numerous reasons.
Local employees may lack a specialized skill that a remote brings to the team. The lower cost of remote resources is often a factor. Mergers may join teams across different locations. Some companies do not maintain a central office, so everyone works remotely.
Fostering high-quality communication is a key challenge in any team setting, and especially so with remotes. Face-to-face communication is remarkably rich compared with working by phone or even by video conference. It’s just not the same when you can’t smell them. Face-to-face communication is perhaps the strongest benefit of a local workforce.
Separation of employees by distance and time reduces the quality and subtlety of communication as well as the time available for interaction. The bandwidth is simply lower when working with remotes than among locals.
How can teams and management foster the best local and remote communication? Let’s distinguish three different cases:
- Fully local teams
- Fully distributed teams
- Local core team plus remotes
Fully local teams
This is the ideal case. Even here, small barriers to interaction have a strong impact. Move a team lead out of an office 10 feet away and seat him next to the rest of the team and the frequency of conversation rises. The passive communication of overheard conversation also increases.
The seemingly small change in location leads to an observable jump in communication quality and bandwidth. Most teams can dramatically improve their communication with some relatively small adjustments along these lines.
Team members will need a way to signal when interruption is expensive. Headphones or ear buds or even a small sign should do that. Members of the team will easily work out when
Help the team stay as close as possible and manage their own interactions.
Fully distributed teams
This is the second simplest case. All members of the team are on an equal footing. Barriers to communication are high, but uniform. The same tools generally serve all of the team members. High bandwidth tools make all the difference. Invest in the ones that work best for you.
Local core team plus remotes
This case is both the most common and the most difficult. The local core team can take advantage of face-to-face communication, while working with remotes means using lower-bandwidth alternatives.
The unfortunate instinct of most teams and managers dealing with this case is to establish uniform methods of communication and encourage the full team to adopt them: chat channels, ticketing systems, video conferencing, email, shared online documents, and so on. This compromises communication among locals to accommodate remotes. That’s a poor trade-off.
In this case, locals and remotes are two different classes of membership in a team. There is no chance that remotes can interact with the richness, frequency, and bandwidth of locals. Forcing locals to rely on the same tools as remotes use gives up too much advantage in local communication. It treats the team as fully remote.
What works for you?
Some companies have one of these cases. Many have more than one. You may need to take a different approach for different teams. It’s tempting to settle on a uniform approach. That certainly makes it easier for management. But if you want to enhance team capability, consider what works best for them, uniform or not, and try it. Stay focused on raising communication quality wherever you can and you’ll achieve better than uniform results.
Posted by William Baxter on Oct 21, 2015