Electronic communications – email, social media, SMS, and so on – are rapidly replacing a good part of human interaction on our planet, and enabling whole new vistas of collaboration. This has its benefits – the ability to work anytime, anywhere, and with anyone, for one. But it also has some drawbacks, and today I want to discuss the problem of human rapport and trust in distributed teams.
Consider the common scenario where you’re part of a team of a dozen people. Used to be, you would all be sitting in the same building and would know each other well; but in today’s globalized companies your team mates may live half way around the planet, so you’ve never met each other before. Where once coworkers knew all about their fellows – their views and preferences, likes and dislikes, politics and families – today it is quite likely you don’t even know what some of them look like. In fact, technology’s strength here is also its weakness: it allows you to collaborate with total strangers.
The problem here is that strangers don’t trust each other much. To collaborate effectively, team members must trust and communicate with each other; and in global distributed teams this trust is utterly critical – and much harder to achieve. The feeling of “Family” that many teams achieved in the previous versions of the workplace has been replaced with alienating anonymity, and this threatens the team’s ability to achieve its goals.
So what can we do to build this necessary trust in a global distributed team? Here are some ideas, gained in my long career working in exactly this situation:
- If at all possible, get the team together face to face at least once, at the beginning of their project. Use the occasion to plan the project and define the team’s ground rules, so future remote interaction is effective and has everyone’s agreement. Have dinner, beers, coffees together. Take a sightseeing tour of the town together. Be together. It may cost some flight tickets but the benefits are priceless.
And even if you can’t do that, there are still things you can do. For instance:
- Write your email messages with care. Email is a terrible medium for conveying emotion, which can easily lead to severe problems; but there are ways to force it to be more human. There are many specific tips, from not SHOUTING in all-caps to never sending email when you’re angry, and you can find these online (Google “email etiquette”). But the bottom line comes to Think before you Send. That means looking at your message through the recipient’s eyes, being sensitive to cultural differences, reading and re-reading any non-trivial message and if there is any doubt, taking a break and re-reading it yet once more later.
- Exchange photographs. Ask team members to email (or post to a shared workspace) photos of themselves. The research shows that this simple act alone significantly improves collaboration among strangers.
Mind you, I’m not talking about those deadpan “employee badge photos” that look little better than criminal mug shots, or even LinkedIn profile photos. Use photos that show the people in real life, enjoying their hobby, or leisure time, or family. These days you can find some of that on Facebook – but not all people have that, and not all coworkers elect to befriend each other on such private networks.
- Exchange information about what people are really like. I love Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s passage in “The Little Prince”, where he criticizes “grown-ups”, who, when you mention your new friend to them, “never say to you: What does his voice sound like? What games does he love best? Does he collect butterflies? Instead, they ask: How much money does his father make?”
Knowing what a coworker collects, what sports and pastimes they favor, gives the relationship a personal touch. Why would you want to do that? Because that creates the empathy that leads to trust, and trust leads to productive collaboration.
- Enable (and encourage) team members to share more than work with each other. This can be done online, through web sites (or Wikis, or Facebook groups) where members can share photos and stories, questions and answers, with each other. Or it can be done in virtual team events, via teleconference, video, or specific applications that allow them to leave work aside and get social with each other despite the distance.
Whatever you choose to do, remember: we are a social species, evolved to cooperate socially in small teams. Take advantage of this ability and transfer it to the distributed team context, and you will reap the benefits!