Today there are many different technologies that can help make leading from a distance easier and more productive. It is important that we take advantage of different forms of technology to enable our geographically separated teams to be more effective.
Sharing screens is a vital tool for leadership at a distance. Enabling everyone to see what is being discussed and listen to the conversation greatly improves engagement and effectiveness during meetings. There are many different screensharing tools available. Two that have worked well for us include Skype for Business1 and GoToMeeting.2 These tools can be used to schedule teleconference meetings and enable anyone participating in the meeting to share the screen in order to contribute information pertinent to the meeting. Depending on the participants in the meeting, it may also be helpful to have a teleconference dial-in number in addition to the screen-sharing tool. This helps avoid some audio problems due to poor internet connections or old computers.
An instant messaging (IM) tool can be very useful for day-to-day communication for short questions or exchanging information that is not time-sensitive. Skype3 and Skype for Business3 are both effective IM tools. We also find IM to be an important part of our teleconferences to point out technology issues (like poor audio or not being able to see a shared screen) or to capture tangential points to be addressed after the meeting in a “parking lot.”
Archiving to save important information and knowledge is crucial to any team. It is even more important to have an electronic archive for teams separated by a distance. There are many different archiving tools available now. One that we have had success with is SharePoint,4 which allows multiple users to access folders and share documents. The folder structure can limit the access to documents based on rules appropriate to your business. The key to archiving important information for any team is not simply storage, but also an easy and effective means to retrieve documents.
Questioning and sharing tools are also very important to teams separated by distance. There are several of these tools currently available, each with different specialties and features. Two that may be particularly useful for your teams might be Yammer5 and Givitas.6 Both tools are especially good at asking other members of your team for information or for help. Yammer provides a running list of questions and input and operates best in real time. Givitas provides an opportunity to ask specific questions of the rest of the team, with due dates and arranging different offers of help with each question. Both tools provide another way for your separated teammates to stay in touch with each other and enable more honest questions to be asked and help to be provided.
One of the key advantages of co-located teams is the opportunity for accidental conversations. These are the conversations that occur on the way to do something else, like getting a cup of coffee, heading out to lunch, or coming or going from the parking lot. They provide the opportunity to ask a question or provide feedback in an informal, comfortable, and accessible way. Distance teams don’t usually have anything like accidental conversations. Meetings are properly arranged and agendas held to, and there is no contact between participants outside the meeting. To be more effective in leading teams separated by distance, leaders can start to organize and provide the equivalent of accidental conversations.
There are nine key steps in recreating accidental conversations.
- Ensure that everyone on the team has easy access to you (the leader).
- It’s important that hierarchy issues within the team be addressed so that everyone feels comfortable reaching out to you and providing you with all the information you need.
- Ensure that everyone on the team has easy access to each other.
- Each team member needs to have direct access to every other team member, without barriers like language, hierarchy, and roles.
- Make the effort to arrange a variety of one-to-one meetings.
- Set up meetings with you and each team member to get direct information and reduce any barriers.
- Set up meetings between other team members to increase comfort with direct communication and to reduce any barriers.
- Set up a parking lot to create a space where tangential ideas and solutions can be stored until later.
- Encourage team members to access the parking lot and bounce ideas off each other.
While it may seem that arranging conversations is the opposite of accidental meetings, it is just the beginning. As the leader demonstrates the value of one-to-one conversations, makes time for them, and values the outcomes, the team will follow that lead. This will enable a richer interaction between teammates, which will then narrow the gap between teams at a distance and co-located teams.
These direct conversations between teammates will also be vital to resolve conflicts on the team. It is difficult for most people to engage in conflict resolution in public. For distant teams, public settings are the team teleconferences. To really use win-win strategies7 in a geographically separated team, leaders need to have developed robust one-to-one and small-group conversations that can defuse the tension of conflict and enable teammates to move toward win-win outcomes.
There are many benefits of leading dispersed teams. They enable us to meet many different people and gain access to different ideas and ways of thinking, and they force us to improve as leaders. Once you address some of the habits of leading in person, the new challenges of leading from a distance can be invigorating. In addition, some of the learnings from leading at a distance can be quite valuable when brought into in-person leading opportunities.
Leading from a distance requires us to explicitly treat every member of the team as a human being, no matter where he or she is physically located. Building relationships with people we have only met once or might never meet in person is challenging. Bringing human interactions into the teleconference with pictures and small talk can be a powerful connector for dispersed teams. We can improve our communication skills, emphasize the vocal communication tools in our toolbox, and encourage accidental conversations between teammates. All of this becomes easier with the judicial application of technology. Technology alone won’t solve the leadership challenges of leading at a distance, but it will reduce the barriers and make the interactions more engaging and productive. If we show each individual that we care and we use effective meetings, teleconferences, and conversations, we all can be effective leading geographically separated teams.
The author would like to acknowledge colleagues past and present at Intertek and Air Products. He would also like to thank the Knowledge Management Department at Air Products, especially Dr. Vince Grassi, for the opportunity to participate in active learning about distance leadership. Current Intertek colleagues from the chemicals community of practice (CoP), engineering chiefs, and products & resources peers all have contributed to this article.
1. Learn more about Skype for Business at https://products.office.com/en-us/compare-all-microsoft-office-products?tab=2
2. Learn more about GoToMeeting at https://www.gotomeeting.com/
3. Learn more about Skype at https://www.skype.com/en/
4. Learn more about SharePoint at https://products.office.com/en-us/SharePoint/compare-sharepoint-plans?&wt.srch=1&wt.mc_id=AID623587_SEM_ANSMvGdt&lnkd=Google_O365SMB_App
5. Learn more about Yammer at https://www.yammer.com
6. Learn more about Givitas at https://www.giveandtakeinc.com/givitas
7. Hanton, Scott, Leading Through Conflict, Lab Manager, December 2017. http://www.labmanager.com/leadership-and-staffing/2017/12/leading-through-conflict