Five Cs of Distributed Teams: How to Work Together When You Are Apart
Chief Advocacy Officer, SupportLogic
collaborationCOVID19customer servicedistributed teamsremote teams
With the global shift to remote work in 2020, many of us were forced to adapt to digital workspaces virtually overnight. Pandemic aside, there was already a trend toward remote work, with almost a quarter of the U.S. workforce working at least part-time from home in 2019. As distributed teams become the new norm and remote work is here to stay, what can you do, as a support manager or executive, to help your team stay motivated and productive? Here are five ideas for helping distributed team members collaborate, communicate, and continue to deliver great service to customers, regardless of where they work.
Many of us have experienced working from home at some points in our careers. Along the way, we’ve acquired proper office setups, learned to stay away from the refrigerator and YouTube, and found ways to collaborate with clients, some of whom we’ve never met in person. We’ve developed the skills, tools, and systems to manage a distributed team successfully and collaborate productively. However, when COVID-19 hit in 2020, many team members had to learn all of that overnight—with little training or preparation. And they had to do so while adapting to a new world of stay-at-home mandates, travel bans, childcare and homeschooling, and concerns for the well-being of family and friends.
Distributed and remote teams face common challenges: isolation, distraction, scheduling challenges, and lack of in-person interactions, to name a few. But there’s much to be gained as well, including enhanced engagement, productivity, and creativity. So what can you do, as a customer support and success manager or an executive, to foster those positive outcomes? Here are my “Five Cs” for successfully managing a distributed workforce:
1. Consistency: Provide daily structure for your distributed team.
Structure is important in any workplace. It becomes even more essential in a virtual office, where team members work in isolation and don’t interact in person with managers, colleagues, and whoever they run into during a coffee break. In the absence of an office’s daily rhythms, be sure to provide tools to help team members structure their days.
This could take the form of a short 15-minute stand-up meeting, where team members share what they’re working on, as well as any problems or obstacles they’ve encountered. Maybe you already hold a daily stand-up with your team, in which case you just need to move it to a videoconferencing format (with the ability to screen-share, of course!). While holding a daily stand-up may initially feel like added work for you, remember that team transitions also provide opportunities to introduce new and best practices.
One of those practices is to embrace transparency and make it your friend, as the folks at Trello recommend. Be sure to share calendars and meeting availability windows between team members. This has become critical during the pandemic, as employees’ schedules have been complicated by new responsibilities such as childcare, distance learning, or caring for relatives. For a distributed team, where team members work across time zones, borders, and even continents, this is simply best practice.
Also, check in with each team member every day. Yes, it is a lot of work. And, yes, it will completely transform the experience from disconnected to connected, allowing you to assess your team members’ state of mind and provide a little kindness and warmth, which goes a long way.
2. Collaboration: Foster teamwork with tech huddles.
In a typical office setting, collaboration happens every day in canteens, along hallways, and across worktables, as much as in Slack or other tools. Whatever your customer model, team synergy is key. Sure, distributed teams don’t have in-person common areas, where impromptu brainstorms and catch-ups occur. But if there’s one thing the pandemic-induced remote-work revolution has proved, it’s that teams don’t need to be in the same physical location to produce outstanding work.
Organize daily, perhaps twice-daily technical huddles to review tough customer cases and provide on-the-spot suggestions. Tech huddles can occur with your colleagues on the engineering team, too. Use a videoconferencing tool to provide “face time” between team members. Daily tech huddles are a great way to discuss technical issues, solve problems, and keep your team members better aligned. Focus these tech huddles on situations where the case owner doesn’t know where to start and requires more urgent help.
Consider recording each video huddle and sharing it with other teams as needed. For extra credit, ask the recipients of these help sessions to write up what they learn in your knowledge base or company wiki. It’s likely that other team members have experienced or will experience similar issues.
3. Competency: Build a skills matrix for your distributed team.
A critical obstacle for distributed teams is knowing who can help with what. A skills matrix provides a framework for identifying which team members have the skills needed to complete a given project successfully. If you already have a skills matrix, wonderful, but it likely needs updating for a distributed-team scenario. Create or update the skills matrix so each support engineer can reach the right resource without having to wait for a tech huddle.
The skills matrix also provides a road map to help you identify what gaps exist in your team, where training is needed, and how team members’ abilities can be nurtured and developed. In the absence of in-person interactions, a skills matrix can help you to assess your team’s strengths and weaknesses, make informed decisions, and better plan for future hiring.
In 2020, many companies were forced to adopt cloud-based software and systems in a matter of months instead of years. But this trend was already underway. Take advantage of well-oiled digital tools like Asana and Trello to streamline—and enhance—virtual collaboration, team projects, task tracking, and workflow. Not only do these tools increase efficiency, but they also promote more autonomy among team members. With the right tools, remote members can become more competent and more empowered, able to move a project forward with confidence rather than relying entirely on in-person decisions.
4. Communication: Make it intentional, frequent, and clear.
Lack of communication is already a common workplace challenge. For a distributed team to succeed, clear channels of communication are critical. Nobody wants to read more emails, though. Shift away from a traditional (and tedious) email chain, and invest in instant messaging systems and other virtual tools to keep your team members aligned on responsibilities, tasks, and goals.
Moving in-person meetings to videoconferencing is an easy, immediate way to foster communication and camaraderie. Face-to-face interactions via Zoom, Teams, or Skype help build trust. Team members can read each other’s faces and body language, smile and laugh, and give a thumbs-up or a round of applause, just as they would in an office conference room. You can use this opportunity to help improve team members’ verbal communication and nonverbal communication skills by sharing suggestions like these tips from CallRail.
All those off-the-cuff questions and fruitful chats that happen between cubicles or in the elevator? A distributed team can—and should—still have those, albeit in a slightly different form. Whether it’s via Slack, Microsoft Teams, or Google Chat, empower your team members to communicate individually and in groups. When possible, use public messaging channels to increase transparency and make information accessible to everyone. That said, beware of overcommunication. No employee likes the feeling of having a manager looking over their shoulder or being bombarded with check-ins throughout the day. Trust your team members, and avoid continual interruption to allow them to focus on their work.
5. Connection: Keep it human and keep it fun.
Last but certainly not least, remember that your distributed workforce—despite all the technological wizardry at their fingertips—is still composed of human beings who need human connection. With this in mind, include team-building activities in your weekly planning to counteract the social isolation that can occur for remote employees. Nothing can replace a weekly happy hour at your team’s favorite sports bar, but via a Zoom room, you can still create the same social opportunities that flourish in an office.
Many companies create Slack channels to allow employees to chat about fun, non-work-related topics, like #music, #movies, and #pets. Likewise, try holding a virtual office party or hosting a weekly trivia contest. Look to other companies, like Zendesk and Slack for creative team-building ideas. A quick Google search reveals countless, inventive ways that businesses fostered remote team-building during the pandemic, whether through remote book clubs, community coffee breaks, or virtual karaoke. In a virtual workspace, the sky’s the limit.
There’s a silver lining
While times of rapid change challenge us as leaders, they also provide opportunities to strengthen our teams. Managing a distributed or remote workforce isn’t always easy, but it can lead to enhanced productivity, streamlined systems, and greater success. From tech huddles to active knowledge management, the best practices that you introduce now will benefit your team far into the future.