Research vs Experience: How do studies on remote working compare to reality?
At DistantJob we’ve gained our expertise in remote working the hard way. We don’t just specialise in finding the best global talent for your software development, but we work remotely ourselves. When we talk about how to manage distributed teams it’s because we’ve been there, done that and got the the t-shirt.
Naturally, we keep an eye on industry news and try to keep up to date with developments. Which is why I was intrigued when Google alerts sent me a link to a study by Students at Portland University titled, ‘A Framework of Fostering Trust in Remote Teams’. If you’ll follow that link, you’ll see the study is actually from 2010 (slow news day, Google?). A little searching and I found a newer study from the Indira Gandhi National Tribal University in India published last year with a similar title.
We pride ourselves on being thought leaders in our industry, so we decided we’d have a close look at these studies and see how these frameworks compared with the advice that we give out via our blog and free eBooks.
The Portland study defines a remote team as one where members are selected for their expertise. This is why we’re passionate about what we do, we want to connect you with experts; not just the developers who happen to live near to your offices. We talk a lot about the global talent pool, and that’s because day after day we find superstar developers and connect them with companies like yours.
Portland defined four stages in which trust could be created in virtual teams; Establishing the team, organizing the team, transition, and accomplishing the Task. Here are there recommendations for fostering trust at each stage:
Establishing the team
The key to trust development here, they say is setting up credibility among team members. This is one of the reasons we love the partnership of the Agile development methodology and remote teams. Daily stand-up meetings and sharing of problems and progress all help to create an environment of mutual trust and respect.
Portland put the onus of creating trust on the project manager. We agree; if communication is the oil in the wheels of a remote team, the virtual team leader is the one who applies it. They suggest that the team leader makes sure employees are aware of each other's strengths and weaknesses, and develops a training program for new virtual team members. We agree, and we’ve shared our tips for on-boarding your remote team members in the past.
It won’t surprise you to hear that we think the key to creating a great team starts before their first day on the job. For us, the first step is hiring the right people. Remote work gives you access to a worldwide talent pool made up from more diverse people than your average job advertisement could hope to attract, but remote working isn’t for everyone. Choosing people with the right personality for, and a proven track record in, working remotely is vital.
Organizing the team
The academics talk about cementing the trust gained in step one as workers come to see each other as able, credible and reliable. Can we just mention Agile again here? If you’re not sure what we’re talking about, then you can get a primer in our free eBook.
Their second point is that you need to build social bonds of cohesion among the team members. We’re totally on board with that one too. If you look through our ‘virtual team building’ back catalogue (they’re listed at the end of this article), you’ll find some great suggestions for this including:
Setting a team goal (not task related) that all members have a stake in.
Having a ‘virtual water cooler’ in the form of a Slack chat channel or similar and encourage your team to use it.
Making time at the beginning of meetings for socializing, not just getting down to business.
‘Hanging out’ together in online environments or playing online games together. Or having a shared goal outside of work, for example, fundraising.
The only thing the virtual team leader can do at this point, Portland say, is be available to provide support and guidance. This seems to be a hard to define stage, where the team goes from needing help to come together, to being a functional unit. At that point they move on to…
Accomplishing the tasks
By this point, your team is working towards its task-related goals. Portland suggests that the project manager focuses on keep staff on task, making sure they express their appreciation of each other and celebrate achievements when they come.
At the risk of being repetitive, the Agile methodology will take care of most of that for you. The regular contact reinforces how much everyone else is accomplishing and keeps everyone’s eyes on the prize. Can we also mention that it can be really helpful to measure success in terms of what has been delivered rather than hours seen online. Judge your staff by results.
We’ve also talked about celebrating success before, but don’t limit that to within the team. Make sure that your virtual team doesn’t suffer from ‘out of sight, out of mind,’ when it comes to company award or reward schemes. Advocate for them and make sure their contributions are recognized.
For the most part, the Indian study gives similar advice to Portland. There are a few ideas that they discuss which are different, which we’ll run through now:
E-leadership, they say, is leading a team via connecting technologies rather than personal interaction. We don’t really talk about e-leadership because we think how you communicate with your staff doesn’t really play a role. You don’t need any special skills to go from being an on-site team leader to a virtual one. It’s the same job, it’s only the tools that differ.
Virtual team leaders only need to focus on communication. It can be easy for remote workers to feel isolated, and regular contact with their team leader helps with that. So does using the Agile dev...ah, we don’t need to repeat ourselves again on that one, do we?
One of the unique challenges that distributed teams face can be working with people of different cultures. The Indian academics advocate intercultural training and awareness. We’ve shared similar ideas in the past, suggesting ways that you can help your team find what they have in common by:
Going on virtual tours of their offices, or sharing information about their home country or town.
Learning about and celebrating special days of different cultures.
This study also discusses how language can be a barrier. We usually say that the easiest way to handle communication is to have a ‘language in common’ for all team members. You need to support your non-native speakers to understand idioms and slang, and it usually helps to send them documentation ahead of the meeting so they can prepare for unfamiliar technical terms before they hear them.
What the IGNTU students mean when they talk about this, is trying to prevent misunderstandings that can happen when most communication is non-verbal. Although there’s some disagreement about how much part body language plays in understanding, there’s no doubt that misunderstandings occur in text-based conversation.
We think the key here is to accept that sometimes, this will happen. To make understanding that part of your onboarding process and to encourage your team to ask if they’re not sure what someone has meant. Yes, your colleague may be being a royal pain in the ass, but make sure that’s what they’re doing before you get bent out of shape about it.
We’re in good hands
So, broadly speaking we agree with the current academic thinking on building trust in remote teams. We’re glad these ideas are being studied and look forward to a new generation of remote-ready managers who are looking for a great virtual team.
If you haven’t come across some of the ideas we’ve talked about today, then you might want to read through some of our previous articles on remote team building such as:
But, like we said at the beginning, building trust in a remote team starts with hiring the right people. We’d love to help you with that. If you’re looking to hire the best global development talent, get in touch today and we’ll find you someone you can trust.