Communication obstacles, that's the only thing that truly separates a remote team from a team in the same physical location. Organizations that make a concerted effort to turn the obstacles into advantages will be the organizations that dominate in the marketplace and scale up quicker than those that do not. I also want to be clear that I'm not advocating the remote is better than physical, rather I believe both are necessary for creativity and trust to thrive.
Today's business environment requires a fast and accurate response to market conditions. The time between identifying an opportunity and leveraging it, is getting shorter and shorter - which means the speed of how quickly you can respond has increased exponentially as well. Communicating with your team becomes much more difficult when they are spread out geographically. But this isn't just about how the work gets done, it's about them feeling like they are a part of something bigger than themselves.
When we hear "communication is key" we often think it means you need to communicate more, but this is a terrible mistake. I've seen too many companies over-communicate in the form of countless cc's, numerous meetings, and endless Slack & Teams messages. In the well-intentioned effort to improve communications, the team has gone numb to the noise.
During my time at Fastmarkets I participated in endless back-to-back aimless meetings where objectives were not clear, accountability was vague and the decision-making process was ambiguous at best. That said, everyone, I worked with was smart, hardworking and genuinely wanted to move the company forward. However, their systems got in the way. They run a system of management called Matrix Management, championed by Digital Corporation in the '70s and '80s. A system that was created in a very physical pre-digital world. That style is still used today in companies like Nike, although I believe it to be antiquated and poorly adapted to the modern world. But that's a side note.
At Fastmarkets, I was at my desk at 5 am MST so I could better sync up with my colleagues in the UK that were nearing lunch hour. This typically gave me a few hours over overlap for real-time communication. As a remote team member, the first part of my day was in "reaction mode," jumping into calls, responding to Microsoft Teams messages, and replying to emails until things started to "calm down" around 11 am MST. Now it was time to focus attention on my team on the East Coast in Pittsburgh and Boston. More meetings, more reactions to messages until the afternoon hours when I finally had time to myself to "do work." It was mentally exhausting.
One of the culprits was a total lack of a modern framework and set of expectations around structure. I didn't buy into the notion that I could change the company's behavior from the bottom-up by setting up better virtual office boundaries. No, I don't believe that would have succeeded because the leadership at the top wasn't truly open to hearing what myself and the team of employees had to say.
My experience at Fastmarkets is more the rule than the exception. An established company, with established ways of working, is being forced into a post-Covid digital World where communications and business processes must be completely rebuilt to stay competitive. So how might a company like Fastmarkets alter its structures to get the most out of the team? Here are five of my suggestions that I believe could improve team performance and overall competitiveness in a services-based business. This is by no means a one-sized fit all approach but it might yield some applicable ideas for your company.
Asynchronous Zero-Meeting Days (AZMs)
I suggest zero meetings days, with completely asynchronous communication other than phone calls. Zero-meetings day is exactly what it sounds like…a day or two where there are no scheduled team or departmental meetings for any reason whatsoever. It's a time when everyone can work without interruption and focus purely on their work. Slack and Teams are disabled. Emails can be sent but there is zero expectation of instant follow-up. This gives employees time to do the deep work, and if there is a digital work process in place, the team can keep communicating and working in a very focused manner.
Digital Work Processes
What are the key processes to the company that are routinely carried out on a daily, weekly, or monthly process? Find a few of these processes and break them into their most simplistic steps and stages. Identify who is responsible for what aspect of the workflow and set up a system to allow the work to flow through the digital process in a system such as Asana or Trello, or maybe something home-grown. This allows team members to hand the work "baton" from team member to a team member without meetings. See Cal Newport's book "A World Without Email" for a better explanation of what this might look like.
I'm a lifelong Philadelphia Eagles fan (for better or worse), and it's clear that during every game the entire team knows exactly where they stand relative to the competition. They know how much time is left, to the second. Each member is keenly aware of who is having a good game, and who is committing the mistakes. Most importantly they know the score and what needs to be done as a team to earn the win.
Everyone on your team must know what the score is, how they can contribute to the win, and where to look to see the most current score. Without this critical piece of knowledge, how does any company expect their team to drive in the same direction?
Scaling Up uses Align to track each team's Huddles, Priorities, and Critical Numbers. This creates a company culture that is transparent and focused on the work ahead.
We call this the Huddle in Scaling Up. It's the daily, weekly, and monthly check-in with each team where we ask these three questions: What is your Huddle Priority? How has this priority changed since last week/month? Have you achieved what you wanted to achieve for today (or by the next meeting)?
This gets everyone on the same page and keeps all digital work processes current. The team also gets a chance to give feedback and ideas on what might need adjustment to improve the work process, or maybe even suggest an improvement of their own.
These three actions can make huge strides in getting everyone moving in the same direction while improving individual productivity and overall company performance through shared knowledge and focus.
Occasional Physical Gatherings
There is no substitute to physically meeting other team members. 80% of communication is non-verbal, and no, virtual meetings don't allow us to read all the body language. Virtual meetings are confusing and energetically draining at times because our brains are often misreading virtual faces that are not attuned to our gaze.
Periodic face-to-face gatherings build trust and understanding with team members. These gatherings shouldn't be all about work, but rather about creating a natural environment for relationships to be made and deeper understandings created.
Step back and look at how your team is communicating. What is redundant? If the price of video communication was $250 per employee, per hour, how would you change your meetings? What if every Slack message costs $1 to send, would you still use it as your default tool for rapid communication? Be aware that "ease" of communication isn't synonymous with "effective" communication. Rethink your system, re-evaluate how you do business amongst your team members.