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Working smarter among distributed teams

March 12, 2012

My coworker and friend, Wayne Kurtzman, who is a veteran of South by South West Interactive events told me long before we came to Austin for SXSWi 2012 that there is great value in dropping on panels you were not originally planning on attending. All right, I thought, there are plenty of panels I want to go to at SxSW. Why would I go to something that does not interest me while there are lots of events that are very relevant and, frankly those are the events my company expects me to attend while I am here. Feeling confident in my decision I opted to fill my schedule to capacity with relevant panes and felt good about taking advantage of every little panel, meetup or presentation in the area of social media for big brands, social marketing for(particularly for B2B) and social content creation. While I did not leave room for serendipitous findings, serendipity found me! The late afternoon session I chose to attend on day three was titled “ 4-hr work Week is BS – Truths of Working Smarter” and it proved to be that serendipitous moment I needed to truly understand what my colleague meant during our session planning back in Connecticut. Why? Well, I expected a session filled with tips and tricks on how to become more effective and efficient “worker bee” That’s not the topic panelists had in mind when preparing content for the panel. They chose to focus instead on a significant phenomenon that is greatly impacting corporate America: the rise of a distributed (aka mobile) workforce. Did you know that 20 million Americans work from home at least 1 day a week (up 75% since 2005) and coworking has doubled in size every year worldwide since 2006? These stats alone a worth a pause if not deeper exploration of this phenomenon.

Did I leave or did I stay?

I am proud to report that I was not among a few that left the room once they realized that they will not get what they came here for. I stayed thinking about the serendipity of great discoveries that my colleague promised I would encounter. Boy, am I glad I did stay. As a “hybrid” worker myself (I work three days at the office and two days from home) this session proved to be a gold mind of ideas I can share with my team helping everybody to improve our collaboration skills and develop a stronger sense of teamwork among distance employees.

Here are my learnings:

Developing team/organizational culture with distributed workforce

The panel tackled a difficult question of developing/maintaining an organizational culture among distributed teams. All experts on the panel agreed that you don’t have to be co-located to develop that culture, but you do have to develop a set of values and principles that defines you as a team. Regular (not necessarily frequent) in-person meetings that are focused on team-building are also key.

The biggest challenge of being remote is working with non-remote team members.

I am a one of two hybrid workers on my team. Some of my colleagues work in the office all the time while some are at remote locations most of the time. Being both in the office and working remotely in the same week gives me a unique perspective on evaluating both work environments. I was glad the panelists recognized the importance of non-mobile workers who need to master the technology, processes and often the etiquette of working with their mobile colleagues. In my opinion this is a key point for making distributed and traditional workers collaborate with minimal friction. Traditional cubicle workers must realize that they are NOT immune from the major shift that is happening at their workplace and they, just like remote workers, need to be comfortable with video streaming, screen sharing, instant messaging and all the other tools that eliminate geographical barriers.

Collaboration etiquette for teams

Identifying your team etiquette designed to bridge the divide between mobile and non-mobile workers is key to change your team’s culture. For starters, making it possible for folks on the phone to be on equal footing with those participating in a meeting in person. This might include having you and the remote team member share a video stream making it possible for both of you to see each other’s non-verbal facial expressions. If video streaming is not an option making sure that you take the time to explain what’s going on in the meeting room (e.g. Joe just entered the room. We are passing printed copies of the report, etc.). Don’t forget to insist on all members of the meeting to state their name before speaking so that folks on the phone are aware of who is talking in the room and vice versa. Finally developing patience and empathy for folks on the phone every time the technology is not working and it takes longer to set up the meeting in the first place. I think this basic set of guidelines is just a beginning and I am sure you can come up with more that are relevant to your teams. I would add making sure that all of your meeting invites are remote worker friendly including a conference call number, screen sharing methodology and details or soft copies of any documents sent to remote workers before the meeting while the folks on the phone receive their documents as a hard copy. Do you have any additional items to be added to the etiquette list?

Your manager: I don’t know how to manage remote teams

Panelists spent quite a bit of time speaking about managers are uncomfortable to let employees become remote workers simply because they don’t know how to “keep an eye” on them if they are out of the office. Panelists argued that this behavior is just your boss’s excuse for having poor managerial skills and has nothing to do with successfully managing remote teams. Research shows that remote employees are more accountable than in-house workers and they seek ways to prove their accountability to make sure their work is visible and accounted for. If you are a manager seek to educate yourself on how to manage distributed teams and PLEASE do not use it as an excuse to keep all of your workers chained to their desks.

Mobile employees = always reachable = always working ?

Dealing with a boss that expects their agile employees to be connected and ready to contribute 24×7 only because he or she knows their mobile number and pays for their cell phone is also a common problem. What was panel’s recommendation to tackle this problem? Don’t be afraid to have a frank discussion with your manager to establish what’s expected of you being an agile employee. If you address these issues outside of a crisis situation chances are high your boss will respect them and will leave you alone on weekends and holidays.

How to be a great panel moderator

I cannot finish this blog post without mentioning Kevin Purdy who served as a panel moderator whose moderation skills were exceptional. He was not only witty and funny (which the audience appreciated at this late afternoon panel time slot), but was quick to realize that the greatest value for a moderator on this particular panel (where all panelists had similar points of view) was not to ask a bunch of questions that all panelists were all going to agree on, but to play the role of the antagonist role-playing the “traditional” boss who wants to keep his workers shackled to their desk at the office simply to “keep an eye” on their productivity or the “progressive” boss who now has your cell phone number and is not afraid to use it at all times of the day (at night) because you are his/her “mobile” worker. Well done, Kevin and big thank you to panelists: Doug Marinaro, Georgia Collins, and Kate North

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