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Working in a remote team

Remote teams bring advantages but also challenges. How can we bring out the best in our team members when they are located in different places?

Do the preparation task first. Then read the article and do the exercises.

Aisha had been very successful managing her team in Edinburgh and was asked by the company to lead a remote team for an important two-year project. Keen to demonstrate her leadership abilities to the head office, Aisha got her team members together for a remote meeting. But right from that first meeting, she realised that this was going to be a different challenge.

For a start, Archie was late for the meeting by about 15 minutes because of 'technical problems'. Lucia kept asking about really specific details, while Aisha was hoping to use the meeting to get to know the team members and identify priorities. Archie and Lucia kept accidentally talking at the same time, and when they didn't speak, there was an uncomfortable silence. Valentina hardly said a word. No one had their cameras on, so there was none of the usual communication through body language or facial expressions. Without these visual clues, Aisha had no idea whether people were interested, lost, confused or bored.

By the end of the meeting, Aisha didn't feel like she had achieved much of her agenda and wasn't sure what people had understood. She wondered how she was going to build trust and encourage bonding in her team.

As companies continue to think globally, and as modern-day technology makes remote working easier, remote teams have become common. Instant messaging, videoconferencing and other web-based tools all help. But communication via modern technology is not without its problems. Meetings, essential for team bonding and working together effectively, can be particularly challenging online. Aside from having to coordinate people in different time zones and ensuring that no one is multitasking and getting distracted, meetings on virtual platforms are not always helpful for good communication. As seen from Aisha's example, videoconferencing is often characterised by uncomfortable silences and people talking over each other. 

So what can managers of remote teams do to improve meetings and encourage successful team bonding? Here are five tips.

1. Build trust quickly.

It can be hard to trust people you don't know very well, so make sure the first meeting includes proper introductions, where members of the team are able to share information about themselves, their role and their context. Encourage people to have their camera on for conference calls right from the start so that team members can put a face to a name and build stronger relationships.

2. Discuss preferred communication styles and approaches to work.

Schedule some time during one of the initial meetings to talk about things like time-keeping, expected amount of participation, how closely members prefer to follow the agenda and so on. Talk about the challenges of online meeting platforms and how members can help make meetings more effective.

3. Discourage distractions.

Minimise the risk of people multitasking and not paying attention during meetings by creating a culture of calling with video on. Another way to ensure that people concentrate during meetings is to give each member a role, for example, someone to take the minutes, someone to notice problems and someone to offer ideas and alternatives.

4. Try to understand what silence means.

If someone is quiet for a while, it might mean 'thinking time', and that's OK. But it might also mean lack of understanding or disagreement, so try to get more information from them. Ask for everyone's point of view at the beginning of a new project and make regular opportunities to speak to team members individually. This will help you understand other people's opinions on things and avoid misunderstandings.

5. Actively manage turn-taking and be careful not to let one person dominate the meeting.

If you notice that someone isn't talking much, ask them for their opinions and bring them into the conversation, or speak to that person later individually to check everything is OK.

With team members located in different places, remote meetings are vital for team bonding and effective teamwork. By making an effort to build trust and encourage good communication, we can avoid common problems and find new ways of working that bring many advantages to the team.

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Language level

Intermediate: B1
Upper intermediate: B2