Today I am glad to welcome one of the prominent specialists creating online collaborative communities for over 10 years, Lisette Sutherland, on Ekipa. I must say I was lucky enough to be part of the CollaborationSuperpowers pros stories on bridging the distance on remote teams.
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Lisette helps teams work together from anywhere by sharing inspiring stories and offering online and in-person workshops. She is a specialist in online remote team collaboration; communities with over 10 years experience with web-based collaboration tools and online community management. Her goal is to get the best people working together regardless of location.
She co-authored “Engagement Management: a step-by-step guide to building a thriving social network“, and helped over 40 organizations and businesses setup and run online communities. She is now working on a new book called “Collaboration Superpowers: Stories of remote teams doing great things”. Learn more at CollaborationSuperpowers.com
Lisette, we’ve spoken a couple of times and I see that you’re deeply involved in remote work and remote teams. Please give us a little background about yourself first and tell us why you’re passionate about remote teams?
About 11 years ago, I was part of a team that was building an online project management tool. More interesting than the tool itself was why it was being built, which was because the CEO didn’t want to die. To the public, he was building this tool to help people manage their global teams. But subversively, he was building the tool so that longevity scientists from all over the world could collaborate and solve the problem of aging. It sounds far out – and it is! But it was an “aha experience” for me.
I realized that the best people needed to solve problems are often not in the same place. And if we remove the issue of being geographically dispersed, we get one big step closer to being able to do great things together. And down the rabbit hole I went!
Removing the issue of being globally dispersed; that’s an interesting notion and my personal mission is along the same lines. I do see that a lot of people struggle with collaborating from different locations, time zones and cultures. How far do you think we humans have removed this issue and if we did at all, what are the three main ‘solutions’ we’ve come up with?
Clearly, a lot of people are struggling with working together from anywhere. In my opinion, one of the challenges is technical illiteracy. I see so many people getting overwhelmed with how many tools there are and struggling with how to keep up with the technology. For that, we need to reach out and help each other out where we can. One department at NASA sets up one-on-one trainings for their staff.
One of my favorite solutions for creating closeness is to use great equipment, minimize background noise and turn the video cameras on. Many people resist using video, but we’re simply more engaged and communicate better when we can see body language and gestures.
My last solution is to hire a remote office manager if you have the need and luxury of doing so. This person makes sure that meetings are coordinated, decisions are documented, reviews are scheduled, files are kept organized… someone who keeps the bytes organized and flowing between colleagues.
I personally see different settings in which people talk about remote teams. There are companies allowing people to work from home (or even anywhere); others have offices abroad or work with software teams in another country. How would you categorize the different forms of ‘remote teams’ and what differences do you see in the way we manage the work?
Here are the types of remote teams I come across most often
- Everyone work from their own location
- Some people work from their own location, and some work together in the same space
- Two or more teams where each team works from a different location
- Global organizations with offices all over the world
Each scenario becomes increasingly complex and requires a different focus for management. For example, when everyone works remote, we have to focus on being on the same page. When two more teams work from different locations, we need to manage that the atmosphere doesn’t turn into an “us versus them” mentality. With global organizations, we need to think about a systematic approach to funnel raw ideas to market and how to encourage different disciplines to collaborate.
You organize workshops around the world on this theme. For which of these groups do you do that usually and what are the central things you teach to each group?
My workshop is focused mainly on managers of globally dispersed teams in large companies – but of course, I think any remote worker could benefit. I built the workshop out of the stories, best practices, and tips from the more than 50 interviews I’ve done with remote teams. We discuss how to avoid miscommunication, increase camaraderie, run problem free meetings where everyone contributes, and inspire continuous improvement.
You’re writing a book about remote collaboration, can you tell us a bit more about the content of the book?
I’ve interviewed over 50 companies whose business models depend on successfully bridging distance. I want to tell their stories and highlight their best practices and lessons learned. The book is a birds-eye view of the current landscape with plenty of zoomed-in detail of how businesses are adapting and perfecting the art of remote collaboration.
What books would you recommend people who want to learn more about remote collaboration? What are the three influencers they should follow?
These are the books I’ve really enjoyed and learned a lot from:
- Dave Eggers, The Circle
- Jurgen Appelo, #Workout
- Scott Berkun, The Year Without Pants
Three influencers I recommend following:
- Jurgen Appelo, @jurgenappelo
- Esko Kilpi, @eskokilpi
- Jacob Morgan, @jacobm
How do you see the future of remote work?
The collaboration economy is encouraging people to become more entrepreneurial. If your company is unpleasant, those of us that are creative, motivated, inspired and driven (all attributes you probably want in an employee or colleague) will not hesitate to find work somewhere else, because we can. The doors are wide open.
Companies also want more flexibility to shrink and expand depending on project needs.
We’ve been working remotely in various ways for years now. Now that technology is no longer a barrier, it’s time to focus on how to do it well rather than should we do it at all. Even if you’re not planning on going remote, it’s wise to have the systems in place that would allow for working from a distance if needed. I believe that companies who have remote processes in place will outperform those who don’t.
You mention a couple of things here: technology, systems, process. What I see is that a lot has been written on the usage of tools. One thing I observe is that on the process side, people tend to under invest; they just go with how they’re used to get work done. Process can sound a bit fuzzy, so when you say ‘companies who have remote processes in place’, where should we start? What are your recommendations to build a strong process?
Start by creating a team agreement and set the expectations for how you want to work together as a team. What kind of information do you need to have for the projects you work on? What kinds of communication do you need to get your work done? How do you know what everyone is doing? Creating a basic set of guidelines decrease misunderstandings and gives you a platform for discussing assumptions.
What are the 2-3 recurring themes you see from all the people you interviewed?
Trust is the number one recurring theme. In other words, how do we know people are working? Trust on remote teams is based on reliability, responsiveness and consistency. There needs to be a shift in mindset from work being somewhere we go to being something we do! This forces us from being time-oriented at work (working 9 to 5, for example) to being results oriented.
Even though it seems basic, time zones are consistently an issue for everyone. My best advice for this is to always talk in one time zone and use tools to double check. But aside from the logistics, in the end, somebody is either going to bed very late or waking up very early.
And the other recurring theme is that continuous feedback loops are critical. Many virtual teams are setting up 360 degree feedback systems so that colleagues and managers can more frequently give feedback on each others performance. In addition to personal feedback, it’s good to get the team together for regular retrospectives (virtually, of course) to reflect on how things are going.
One thing I miss in these three is ‘meeting up (regularly)’ > that’s a theme that I have heard over and over while writing my books. What value do you attach to meeting in person ?
There is huge value in being able to meet face to face. It comes up in almost every interview I do. I love being remote more than almost anyone I know, but I cannot deny the power of meeting face to face whenever possible.
That being said, my personal interest is solving the issues of what we do when we can’t meet face to face.
What is your advice for people working with remote teams?
When going remote, there is no one formula to follow. There isn’t a single process that will work for everyone. Every company should experiment for themselves with what works and doesn’t. Start small and iterate. Take what works and move to the next step. Experiment with new tools, be open to new ideas, and buy my book, of course!
When can we expect your book and where can people get it?
You can pre-order the book now. I expect it to be published in September.
Let’s have some fun!!
Lisette works as the remote office manager for Happy Melly Team. Don’t they look cheerful and super-excited?
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