Larry Kunz, Extreme Networks
June 15, 2020

Since the beginning of 2020, many of us by necessity have grown accustomed to working away from the office. Whether you use the seemingly ubiquitous Zoom or another tool, you’ve no doubt become familiar with videoconferencing and experienced both its strengths and weaknesses.

You’ve probably noticed that it’s harder to collaborate with remote teams than with teams that are co-located. It’s harder to keep everyone in sync, all rowing together to move the boat forward. Team members might struggle to share timely, accurate information. They might experience confusion and misunderstand things without even realizing it.

When your team is far-flung, when members rarely (if ever) meet each other in person, communication needs to be more intentional – both for making your meaning clear and in discerning what teammates are saying to you.

When your remote team spans across time zones and international borders, other more practical challenges come into play as well.

Whether you’re the leader of the team or an individual member, here are some techniques you can use to keep everyone rowing together.

Make Your Meaning Clear

The people in your virtual meeting room see only see a tiny image of you, if that. They struggle to see your facial expressions, and they probably can’t read your body language at all.

You need to rely on words to convey your meaning. This is especially important when you’re communicating important information or seeking consensus.

Use words that are specific and direct. In an in-person meeting, you can say I need someone to update the budget estimate and nod to a colleague across the room. Now, you should make a direct request (or order, if you have the authority): Steve, will you update the budget estimates? – and be sure to get a verbal response.

Humor and sarcasm might be appropriate when a close-knit team is meeting in-person. Either everyone gets the joke, or everyone can see – by facial expressions and body language – that a joke is being made. In a remote meeting, humor can backfire if the team members don’t know each other well, or if they don’t share common cultural assumptions. When you use humor in a business setting, you’re aiming at a small target. When your humor is directed to an international team, the target becomes even tinier. I’m not saying you should never use humor. Just be judicious.

Adapt to People’s Communication Styles

Even when everyone strives to make their meaning clear, your far-flung team still encompasses a variety of communication styles. That can be hard to remember when you only hear their voices or, at most, see tiny images in a Zoom window. When you work with people in person, you adapt unconsciously to their differing communication styles.

Now, rather than adapting automatically, you have to adapt intentionally. Does a colleague seem to be wasting five minutes of a thirty-minute call explaining background information? Perhaps they’re providing what they see as needed context. Or they’re thinking a problem through in real-time. If you force them to rush, you might end up shutting them down. Worse, you might lose their trust.

Communication styles vary across cultures. For example, some colleagues might be reluctant to ask questions in a public meeting, for fear of losing face. If the virtual meeting room is silent, instead of assuming that everyone understands the information you just presented, offer an opening to ask questions, for example: This is a pretty complex topic. Does everyone understand the reasoning behind the decision we’re about to make? Did I leave anything out?

For group members who are habitually quiet, try following up one-on-one, using chat or instant messaging. They can give voice to their concerns, or their confusion, without having to do so in a public forum.

When a colleague says yes in response to your giving direction or seeking consensus, what are they really saying? An American’s yes almost always means I agree or that’s OK. However, in many cultures, yes merely means I understand. You might need to follow up with another question: Do you agree? or Can I count on you for that?

Honor Time Zones

In 2016 and 2017, my company acquired three major business units from other companies. In just a few months, my team’s geographical footprint grew from one time zone to four (U.S. Pacific to Eastern) to thirteen (all four U.S. time zones, Europe, and India). Suddenly, a 10:00 a.m. meeting in California meant that colleagues in Europe and India had to work past quitting time. A 9:00 a.m. meeting in North Carolina forced members in California to join at (or before) the crack of dawn.

The upside of global teams like this is that they can provide practically round-the-clock coverage: No matter what time it is, someone is at their post.

The downside: Scheduling meetings is much harder. The only time window that works for everyone on my team is between 7:00 and 9:00 a.m. Pacific and even that causes team members in India to work well into the evening. (Fortunately, everyone I’ve worked with in India is accustomed to this and accepts it graciously.)

Do everything you can to keep team meetings within this time window. Encourage all members to avoid scheduling other things during these times, so they’re more likely to be available for team-wide gatherings.

Record all meetings, so that when people have to miss a meeting  they can catch up. Follow up, as well, with people who miss – either by email or video call – to ensure they stay informed and have a chance to contribute.

Make Sure Everyone Can Share Files

When a team works in the same location, it’s easy and commonplace for everyone to share access to a file repository. (Long ago, that repository was a physical filing cabinet; today it might be a shared drive on a LAN.) Sharing is so easy, in fact, that you might overlook the added challenge of providing access to team members who are distributed around the world.

Collaborate with your company’s IT department. They might prefer to set up shared file systems that can be accessed by everyone through a virtual private network (VPN). Or, they might help you select a cloud-based repository – there are lots on the market – that meets your company’s requirements for secure, worldwide file sharing.

File sharing is something you need to plan and manage. You also need to ensure that all team members have the access credentials and the know-how to use the system. It’s no longer a matter of showing them where the filing cabinet is located, or of having a shared drive appear, as if by magic, when they boot up their laptops. Write down the procedures, or provide training as part of your onboarding process.

Build Relationships and Rapport

All the advice I’ve shared has two common threads: respecting each team member and acting intentionally. When everyone communicates clearly and unambiguously, and when you attend to practical matters like time zones and file sharing, every member is empowered to contribute fully.

Here are a few more ways to bridge the geographical and cultural divide:

  • Show a lot of gratitude. Take every opportunity to express appreciation that’s meaningful and sincere. This simple gesture builds strong bonds of loyalty and trust.
  • Whatever your role on the team, check in regularly and frequently with your colleagues. Make sure they have what they need to do their work. Give them a chance to air concerns and ask questions. In an office setting, these check-ins happen organically, through chance encounters at the elevator or water cooler. On a far-flung team, they happen only when you make them happen.
  • Mentoring is a great way for young professionals to grow, and for their older co-workers to feel needed and useful. Again, many mentoring relationships happen organically in an office setting – but not when people are physically separated. Do what you can to encourage these relationships on your far-flung team. You can even play matchmaker if necessary, by pairing two employees and suggesting that one mentor the other.

Build on Your Own Experience

Even if 2020 was the first time you worked away from the office for an extended time, you probably already know a few techniques for remaining productive and collaborating with coworkers. Whether you’re a leader or a team member, I hope the insights in this article will build on the knowledge you’ve gained, so that you and your team will work even more effectively.