Fostering synergy in dispersed teams: Strategies for effective collaboration

With the rise of both freelancing and global working, the definition of “teamwork” has begun to change. In a pre-pandemic world, working in a team used to mean being on-site in a traditional office setting, having personal, face-to-face interactions in order to build a sense of camaraderie, and a short stroll across the room whenever you wanted to ask a question. Now it means instant messaging, email, and video chats with far-flung locations and remote workers who may be in different time zones or on different work schedules.

With the world now opening up, an increasing number of businesses are choosing to operate with partially or even entirely remote teams, most famously tech brands including Zapier, Basecamp and Github. Whether you choose to go remote or are forced into it with lockdowns (or employees simply not feeling safe enough to come back full time), one has to accept the numerous advantages of the remote approach. The most obvious of these advantages is a reduction in office overheads, and in addition, there is a larger pool of talent to choose from when you can pluck the best people from wherever they happen to be in the world.

Disbursed teams are also being hailed as the new route to efficiency and productivity, with minimal time lost to commuting, unnecessary routine meetings, grapevine discussion or other distractions that come with an office-based team. However, shifting to distributed working isn’t without its challenges, of course.

There’s naturally an impact on things like culture, trust, communication, and collaboration, so it takes some adjustment to make it work.

Here’s our list of best practices to help develop team synergies:

  • Define expectations: When you can’t physically see your team members, it’s even more important to ensure roles and responsibilities are clearly defined. That shouldn’t mean micromanaging what everyone is doing- which can foster frustrations and is self-defeating- but make sure you understand from the word ‘go’ what outcomes are expected from you, as well as the other team members. It’s also a good practice to clearly define each team member’s role in contributing to the overall objectives. Be clear what success looks like from the outset, to avoid lost time and misunderstandings at a later stage.
  • Develop your own language: We’re not suggesting you all learn French, but it’s important to develop your own short-hand for communicating about your needs, how you’re feeling, and to reference key areas of your project. That could mean having a code word for when you need to work without being disturbed, or acronyms to clarify whether you’re expecting a response to an email (e.g. NNTR – no need to respond), or a fast response (e.g. 4HR – four-hour response). This provides consistency, reducing the chance of miscommunication, or causing unnecessary offence.

Tackle that tech: In a remote team, your ability to collaborate and communicate with your colleagues relies entirely on the technology at your disposal.

This makes it vital to establish at the outset which tools you will all use, and for what – and then ensure you have access to the tools that work effectively for your needs. Constantly switching between three messaging apps, two video conference providers and an email account is a massive drain on team time, leading to frustration and confusion. Similarly, poor quality telephone and video calls are unproductive, awkward and do nothing for team understanding and cohesion. It pays to spend time identifying the right providers.

  • Eliminate isolation: One of the big dangers of disbursed teams is that you will feel disconnected from your colleagues, or that the team will fail to share knowledge and/or lose track of what everyone is up to. The best way to avoid this is through a structured routine of phone or video-based ‘get-togethers’, on a daily or weekly basis. How your team chooses to run these is up to you, but it should give everybody the opportunity to feed in about what they’ve achieved since you last caught up and what their focus is for that day or week. Make sure these happen, come rain or shine, giving your team time to connect, hear each other’s voices and stay in the loop of what each other are doing.
  • One-to-ones: Taking the above practice on step forward, it’s also a good idea to organise one-to-ones with key colleagues on a regular basis, to understand more about their work, current priorities and challenges, and to find out how you can collaborate better together.

Remember, it’s hard to overcommunicate when you’re working in a remote team – you should therefore be aiming to effectively communicate more than in an office environment, not less.

  • All work and no play, make a dull team: Try to replicate some of the cultural and social aspects of being together in an office, by supporting and celebrating each other’s successes, and using humour to lighten the mood.These opportunities to blow off steam together foster a sense of connection that remote or distributed teams can otherwise lack. Emojis and gifs are a great way of personalising communications, or you could try introducing a message channel for when you want to send fun messages, socialise and or celebrate successes.
  • Actual physical contact: And finally, it also helps enormously to actually meet up from time to time, to strengthen those team bonds. No matter if your team consists of full time employees or a mix of freelancers – employees, nothing beats spending physical time together to build trust and relationships, even if it’s just once every three or six months (don’t forget to follow local social distancing regulations). It’s worth the time coordinating diaries and spending a bit of cash to make these face-to-face interactions happen.
Going from a central to a remote team can take adjustment to get used to, but you can ease the transition by understanding the biggest communication and cultural pitfalls and putting processes in place to avoid them. With remote teams on the rise, this way of working is only
going to become more commonplace. The days of tea rounds and watercooler moments, at least outside of the virtual world, are officially numbered.