Working together apart

Global teams

There is a modern trend that has spread across the world, changing how we work together. Global virtual teams have the power to dominate the business world. To do so, they must first get the basics right.

How far apart?

There is a huge difference in the proximity needs of the people involved in narcotics anonymous, for example, and those composing the Wiki-editor community. It is a stark reality that some human interactions require closeness, one could not do Jui Jitsu with someone who is not sweat-sharing distance away. Some transactions require your fellow humans to be near; your taxi driver has to have decent proximity to you. Your accountant, however, sits somewhere else on the scale.

Close contact sport jiu jitsu
Some interactions require close contact. Others don’t.

A global team can be very far apart indeed. There are limits, however, to how far one can effectively stretch the time zone spread.

Working together, apart

Many asynchronous tasks are just as easily met by a team composed of members working at a distance from each other. Even big projects can be broken down into modules completed by groups in different locations. Failure, however, is common. Often when disparate teams attempt to solve complex problems using modern communication technologies the people involved give up, because they fail to communicate well with each other. Typically the work process is reorganized to reduce the need for distant communication [2].

Working together well, whilst apart

There are some simple guidelines to follow. Apply these [2] and your team will succeed in communicating across the world’s divide

1. Don’t ask for meetings to solve complex issues using team members in very different time zones.

There needs to be a synchronicity of experience between people. A big part of that is our circadian rhythm. Having all your people with breakfast inside, but not hungry for lunch yet, (or tired and thinking about the commute back home) allows more of the team to be working at the same tick-over rate, with similar mental states. There are limits to how far apart metabolically and rhythmically people can be to achieve certain highly-coupled tasks.

2. If any meeting members are communicating in a second language audio-visual (AV) must be used.

If everyone speaks the same language you may skip the visual unless you are discussing common designs, files, shared experiences in which case put visual back in the useful column.

AV has to be the technology that people still fail at the most. It is not uncommon, even now, for half of an hour-long meeting to be taken up with getting everyone present and accounted for. File sharing and desktop sharing has become a smooth experience with apps such as TeamViewer and Hangouts in the field. Seeing a person with their face close enough and expressive enough, with the microphone well set, and in a team meeting, repeating that for the next person talking. Well, it just ain’t happening yet.

This has to be addressed by us folks behaving a whole lot smarter. If the team does not know each other, then a person should say their own name, every time they jump in with a comment. There needs to be a hot seat or a hot space- where someone talking for more than 10 words must take the stand so that their gestures and expressions are clear to the recipients. Even more challenging, that person holding court needs to see the expressions of the recipients who understand them the least, to fine tune their words in response.

3. Get the people to network in real life, or using Audio Visual

If you want teams to work together then let them meet each other. Experiments in shared investment trading found that people behaved collaboratively if they had briefly met or seen their collaborator, yet selfishly if they had only used a chat system like Slack or Hangouts [3].

colleagues conducting a poorly planned av session whilst working together
Better access to faces by the audience and of the audience can improve communication. People gesture as part of their communication technique, make sure you can see them. Facial expressions warn you when your message is not being received.

4. Analyse your work-flows

Web2 technologies exist to enable collaboration. Teams can choose a simple relay-flow or a parallel-flow, which is most effective for your team? Check your flow for bottlenecks, have you created a centrally managed system, despite your best intentions? Wiki-style collaborative technologies are great for collaborative, logic-based tasks. Whereas, more real-time interaction suits creative problem-solving tasks [4].

5. Analyse your team

Different teams excel at different tasks. Studies have revealed [4] that diverse groups of people are better at creating diverse and novel solutions to problems, whilst teams that share a cultural and social background are better at implementation.

Test for yourself

The power of conducting your own data analyses cannot be overemphasized. Learn from your mistakes, try new approaches. Your team or culture may be particularly well suited to communicating in certain ways. Test these and assess their effectiveness, trail different techniques. By using KPIs such as efficiency measures (say, the quantity or accuracy of material or timeliness/adherence to deadlines [3], [4]), or assessing the value-add of particular cooperation strategies, your own department can trial and keep the strategies that work best for your situation.

Simple idea for data collection in .md files
There are simple ways to collect KPI data to be able to analyze the effectiveness of your communication strategies. Such as this front matter in a .md file. Record deadline dates and the slip between those and completion. Implement different communication strategies and analyse their effectiveness.

Trust other people

Some of the most incredible creations driven by the web rely on decentralized, global virtual teams. Wikipedia and bitcoin, are both fantastic examples of successful teams working together whilst far apart. Both share a fundamental principle of interaction with people and that is: assume good faith. Meet the people you are working together with even if your workflows are parallel, not concurrent. Collaborate and, assume good faith. Both will pay you and your business great dividends.

This article was inspired by the following articles and book:

[1]A. Jimenez, D. M. Boehe, V. Taras, and D. V Caprar, “Working Across Boundaries: Current and Future Perspectives on Global Virtual Teams,” J. Int. Manag., vol. 23, pp. 341–349, 2017.
[2] Brafman, O., & Beckstrom, R. A. (2006). The starfish and the spider: The unstoppable power of leaderless organizations. New York: Portfolio.
[3] S. Gao, Y. Guo, J. Chen, and L. Li, “Factors affecting the performance of knowledge collaboration in virtual team based on capital appreciation,” Inf. Technol. Manag., 2016.
[4] B. Heidrich, R. Kása, W. Shu, and N. Chandler, “Worlds Apart But Not Alone: How Wiki Technologies Influence Productivity and Decision-Making in Student Groups,” Decis. Sci. J. Innov. Educ., 2015.


Office colleagues photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

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2 thoughts on “Working together apart

  1. masterbunny Reply

    Editorial by the Author Harrie Bickle

    I love the web because it represents the best of what people can be. It is far from perfect, whilst it spins such excesses of false news, socio-political manipulation, and falsehoods fed to innocent kids asking the enormous G “how do rockets move through space?”, seriously if we can’t trust NASA as an authority site who can we trust?

    The flip of the coin is that disparate groups are using the web to work together in a whole new way and they are creating monuments that will make the pyramids look like a breeze to build. People have built volunteer communities that are giving me hope for the future of people. These leaderless movements are varied in purpose, yet share a common trait; they are resilient to the loss of one human-ant in their Wikipedia or bitcoin nest [1].

    The bitcoin idea is out, life has been breathed into it and it ain’t going back in the bottle folks. Global virtual teams take great ideas and make them live. The file-sharing Napster may be gone in name, but it simply oozed into a new form. Human consciousness is interacting in a whole new way and the results are monumental.

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