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How Can I Trust Colleagues I Barely See in Person?
When everyone works in one office building, even if not in close proximity, establishing trust in colleagues can be as easy as breathing—or as refilling your mug at the nearest coffee station. It’s natural to strike up casual conversations with colleagues who work in different departments or in different teams. We gather all kinds of personal and professional details about who they are and how they comport themselves that make it easy to pass trust back and forth between each other
But how do colleagues in remote work who seldom meet in person, if at all, discern that others are reliable?
Trust is the glue that binds virtual groups and assures work success. There will be times when default, conventional notions of trust that rely on credible, repeated interactions over time and shared contexts will be necessary for your work. Other times it’s necessary that you just give your trust unless proven otherwise.
Because trust is dynamic rather than static, you can use the trusting curve much like you would a compass, to ascertain where you are in the trust process—high and fast or low and slow—and where you might want to go. Discerning the magnitude and intensity of trust you need in a given situation has to happen with little face-to-face contact.
- Assume the best. If necessary, you can quickly confer trust to team members sufficient to fulfill a shared task.
- Gain direct knowledge to better understand the context in which team members’ work is fodder to enhance relationship trust.
- Study your own reflection. Developing an empathic lens that lets you see how others experience you and your actions yields powerful information that can help you to cultivate meaningful trusting relationships.
Can My Team Really Be Productive Remotely?
Here’s the good news: the fears that inform some managers’ gut reaction to use surveillance tools are unfounded. Studies show that remote work does not pose a threat to productivity; in fact, remote work actually increases it. Managers who adopt policing strategies miss a central fact about productivity, namely, that it comes from the trifecta of team results, individual growth, and team cohesion.
When it comes to the connection between team results and individual growth, for example, working from home affords employees more flexibility in arranging schedules, gives them more autonomy over their work environment (no more thermostat wars), and saves time on commutes.
When Cisco launched a remote work program in the Silicon Valley area in 1993, more than 90 percent of their employees participated in the grand experiment to work from anywhere. People had the freedom to choose their desired place to be on the job—coffee shops and kitchen tables, as well as the office, were acceptable options. It didn’t take long for Cisco to reap the financial benefits from the savings on hefty real estate upkeep with fewer bodies at the official workplace. Cisco credited an uptick in the focus and dedication that remote work inspired as reportedly saving $195 million from a rise in productivity within a decade.
Another technology company, Sun Microsystems had built a diverse workforce that needed to collaborate across multiple time zones and functions within their workplace locations. Along with the unique needs of a distributed team structure, employees also expressed a desire for more flexible work arrangements. That’s why, starting in 1995, Sun’s top management began brainstorming possible options, ultimately designing and launching a remote work program that they called “Open Work.” The leaders concluded that they needed to enable employees to work from anywhere, anytime, using any technology. At the time, this was considered a fairly unusual idea.
- Lean into the inherent flexibility of the remote format. Instead of monitoring team members obsessively, encourage their autonomy.
- Provide support for optimal working conditions because they are pivotal and might require financial resources from your budget.
- Emphasize team goals and identity. Without a home base that has the company’s name and brand scrawled above the entrance, remote teams need explicit reminders about their purpose.
How Should I Use Digital Tools in Remote Work?
Rich media are those that convey greater amounts of information, including social cues and social presence, which enhance understanding across a wide swath of situations, even those that are ambiguous, whereas lean media are those that convey less information, fewer social cues, less social presence, and have relatively limited communication. Both lean and rich media are important and exist on a continuum. The richer media are more effective in situations with higher ambiguity, higher equivocality, and less clarity, while leaner media will be more effective in situations that are more straightforward.
Context is everything when it comes to communication, virtual or not. It’s not enough to subscribe to the latest social media platform or fanciest videoconferencing hardware. Sometimes it’s better to wait on sending an email—or not send it at all—and other times it’s best to press send ASAP. Employees and leaders need to become more strategic and mindful in deploying digital tools, and part of that process is learning to understand communication media in terms of its characteristics—lean versus rich, synchronous versus asynchronous—and apply that to what we know about relationships between the people with whom we work. As it turns out, a lot of our instincts about using these tools are wrong and produce a different effect than we intend. And the race to do more, more, more just because the technology allows is perhaps the most counterproductive.
Finally, creating urgency and setting priorities is the job of the leader, not the technology. We may communicate virtually, but we are affected by the human aspects of social dynamics and social presence that we know from face-to-face interactions. Too many times, leaders lean on technologies to do the work of setting priorities and getting a feel for what’s going on with their teams. They are not a substitute for the work of leading.
- Mix it up. Tech exhaustion occurs when we let digital tools structure communication activities such as scheduling too many videoconference calls back-to-back, rather than structuring activities around our own needs. Using a mix of available media—synchronous and asynchronous—to match our goals lessens tech exhaustion.
- Be present. The social presence problem stems from the extent to which certain digital tools enable us to deliver social cues that promote intimacy—the feelings of interpersonal closeness—and immediacy—the psychological distance or feeling of mental or emotional connection between speakers.
- Remember that less can be more . . . and vice versa. The richer media will be more effective in situations with higher ambiguity, higher equivocality, and less clarity, while leaner media will be more effective in situations that are straightforward.
How Can My Global Team Succeed Across Differences?
If you were raised in a North American culture you were probably taught that making eye contact when talking to another person projects confidence and honesty. If you were raised in other parts of the world you may find direct eye contact rude or threatening, especially if you don’t know the other person well.
Cultural differences are inherent in remote, global teams. The interplay between how we see ourselves and how others see us is a dynamic process that influences our behaviors and emotions. We often find it easiest to align our self-perceptions—eye contact projects confidence—and others’ perceptions of ourselves—eye contact is threatening—by surrounding ourselves with other people who think similarly, but that becomes impossible when working on a global team comprising people from different cultural backgrounds.
In addition to working remotely, people on global teams must also learn to navigate differences that are typically cultural and linguistic. In this sense, they face steeper challenges than do remote teams who share a common culture or language. Even if you all speak the same language and share similar cultural assumptions, you may differ in age, gender, work experience, and training. Some members of your team may be more extroverted and tend to dominate conversations, while other, more introverted team members may hang back and be reluctant to speak. Mutual learning and mutual teaching are not exclusive to global teams; indeed, teams of any sort may want to practice some version of these best practices and key actions to ensure shared learning and to leverage differences for positive outcomes.
- Dial it down. Team members more fluent in a shared language or lingua franca need to slow down the pace of the dialogue and make sure everyone is on the same page.
- Dial it up. Those less fluent in the lingua franca need make an active effort to participate in the dialogue despite very understandable fears about speaking up.
- Keep the same code. If you share a native language with some teammates, avoid code-switching between your native tongue and the lingua franca when in a shared virtual space with the whole team.
What Do I Really Need to Know About Leading Virtually?
Leading virtually, though multidimensional and uniquely challenging, can be rewarding. Much of the time it’s learning to reorient yourself from your in-person tool kit that relies on physical presence and informal communication to virtual equivalents or entirely new tools. Many of the rules for leading in collocated conditions still apply, but for remote teams you have to be more mindful and conscious in your efforts to achieve the same results. Leading virtually often requires you to be more formal to make interactions feel informal and more structured to create open time for informality. Understanding the various ways that subgroups and faultlines can form when people work in distributed teams—and discouraging the inherent divisiveness—is key. Equally important is making sure to communicate regularly and consistently to remote team members who are not visible. Once you become attuned to the inherent risks of remote work and establish the necessary countering measures, you will enjoy a loyal remote group that performs in accordance with each member’s unique capacities. You and your team will feel empowered to handle any situation that might arise.
- Minimize differences. Where people are located matters. Differences in distributed team members’ geography, as well as differences between team members who do or do not work remotely, can engender subgroups and social dynamics that result in conflict.
- Emphasize strengths, not status. Class divides will form among groups based on differences in size along with real or perceived differences in status.
- Promote a common purpose. Faultlines will develop in every team. Leaders can work against faultlines’ corrosiveness by building and stressing one group-level identity: the umbrella identity that binds the team together into one and reminding team members that they each represent the team.
How Do I Prepare My Team for Global Crises?
To understand panoramic awareness, think of a camera lens, especially the one so many of us now use on the ubiquitous iPhone. We know to use the camera’s landscape lens to photograph a wide swath of countryside or a 360-degree view of a room. To snap a close-up picture of a single tree in a landscape or a friend’s face in a room, we use the portrait lens. In much the same way, global leaders must learn to shift their attention from a wide swath of events, which are often international in scope and involve crisis, to close-ups of, for example, team dynamics or local sales figures.
Scanning current global issues is the first step in developing panoramic awareness. Leaders don’t have the luxury of consuming news solely in one part of the world. Like the landscape lens, you must constantly maintain as wide a view as possible on international events, including the fluctuation of oil prices, regulatory or labor law changes, and shortages or surpluses in agriculture that could impact entire ecosystems. Whether they are transient and fast-moving or changeable, it is important to be vigilant and investigate the relevance of global events. One simple yet essential practice is to consume a variety of international media on a consistent basis. That will allow you to better grasp events, geopolitical or otherwise, which is a first step for defining the local problems your “portrait lens” perspective will pick up in your own business jurisdictions.
- Frame the situation and risks your team may face as you prepare to meet possible future challenges wrought by global events
- Talk to colleagues, workers, and subject experts to gain insight into how to best meet an ongoing crisis or to prepare for future crises.
- Act immediately as best you know how in response a crisis once you have reached a satisfactory strategy.