Anyone in a long-distance relationship knows of the inherent communication challenges.
It is no surprise that leading a distributed team, located away from you is riddled with the same types of problems to overcome.
Why is a Distributed Team Different?
A relationship with someone you share the same location with looks very different from someone far away. The needs of the relationship, however, are the same. It only looks different because you are not physically with each other in a long-distance relationship (LDR). You also communicate differently, using text chats and phone calls primarily.
Difference Between Long-Distance and In-Person Communication
In my first LDR, we met online. In my second, we dated for eleven months before he moved to another city for school. The challenges were common in both situations:
I craved more communication
Despite the scheduled calls and high frequency of texts, it was never enough to bridge the gap of being away from each other.
I misunderstood messages easily
Phone calls were easier, but text messages were oftentimes misread. The misunderstandings either caused fights or silence, both of which pushed us away from each other.
I wanted to be closer physically
I was envious of other people’s relationships because they didn’t have to be apart every day.
I looked at celebrities to see how they managed the stressful nature of holding onto relationships from afar. Their techniques are not only for romantic relationships, but they also inspire us to better manage work teams who are far away from us.
Why Is Communicating with a Distributed Team Difficult?
You might question how leading a virtual team is harder than an in-person team.
First, if you run a remote team or have team members in a distant location, chances are, you’re a virtual leader.
Second, you could agree that maintaining a healthy relationship is already difficult under one roof. It’s even harder with oceans apart that separate two lovers, two colleagues, or a manager and his team.
Third, how you communicate; your choice of the right medium, your consideration for the other person, must be treated with care. You can unintentionally take the other person for granted. Communication is at the heart and keeps the relationship beating.
Tender loving care is lost in digital communication
Last week I had these moments with my face-to-face team to show I care. These gestures are easily forgotten with remote teams.
It is almost impossible to give the same care for a remote team because I don’t have the physical cues to prompt me.
Here are examples of what’s possible by being in the same room:
— I said, “Bless you” to a team member’s sneeze.
— I smiled and said, “Hello” as I passed each desk.
— I laughed and joked with a group of colleagues before we left for the day.
— I complimented an individual on his new haircut.
Leaders have to increase their virtual communication in the same way as celebrities do to keep their relationship active.
Although Claire Danes and her husband live together, they are often apart because of work. She suggests texting as a communication tool:
“We talk a lot, we text a lot, we send each other photos of our toes — dumb stuff. I think it’s dangerous when you go into reporting mode, when you just kind of list things you’ve done that day. Sometimes you just kind of have to act as if you were with each other and not say anything terribly significant.”Claire Danes
How Do You Manage a Distributed Team?
Communication strategies for leading remote (long-distance) teams
Other LDR goers give their advice for making it work. The tips can be applied to leading teams situated in different offices.
1 — Talk about the dumb stuff
Move work chats beyond a project status. Take Clare Danes’ advice and prevent talks from always being in reporting mode. If updates and timelines are the only items discussed, they don’t contribute to connecting individuals and managers.
Chat about silly things. I’ve shared dumb moves like putting my shirt on backwards and inside out or leaving the house in slippers so that our interactions went beyond just shop talk.
It may seem like a waste of work time but it’s not. Personal chatter can be done in small bursts throughout the week that increase the work bond among colleagues.
2 — Choose love over and over again
Real love is said to be beyond the adrenaline rush of feelings. It is a lesson I have learned the hard way too many times. I grew up with the view of true love just happens. It’s not true. It takes genuine caring work.
Showing care for another person and nurturing the relationship is a choice you make daily.
In business, the novelty of a new team member, manager, client, or workplace makes us give extra efforts. When those efforts fall off, the other person feels it. Unspoken hurt feelings deteriorate the relationship.
3 — Speak up if something is bothering you
Share your concerns if you have some. Don’t keep negative feelings inside too long because they turn into untrue stories inside our minds.
We are intuitive creatures. If actions are out of the norm, just ask instead of imagining something that may not be true. If your team member usually responds with long written responses and now gives one or two-word replies, find out what has changed.
I have made this mistake so many times. I create stories like these that break the trust between my team and me:
- She didn’t say hi back with enthusiasm when I greeted her so she must not like me.
- He is dressed well today so he must be looking for another job.
- He was glancing at his phone when I shared the news about a new project so he is not passionate about his work.
The problem with these stories designed by my imagination is everything after the so is a fabrication of the truth. Though it is hard, each time I initiated an honest check-in conversation, I was proven wrong about my interpretation of the situation.
The true version of the situation comes out and talking with each other about it prevents new false stories to be told. Vanessa Hudgens uses this strategy with her boyfriend.
“I think that if anything’s bothering you, don’t hold it in. “Always bring it up and just talk about it. Uncensor yourself and just be open.”Vanessa Hudgens
4 — Leave love notes
Write work-equivalent love notes. Not the kind that would get you called in by your HR department. At my workplace, we are furnished with blank awesome cards. When we are impressed by a colleague, we write a card and give it to our peer.
Last week, I wrote one for a co-worker and planned to hand it to him in person. Our schedules were mismatched and I didn’t see him even after the workday was done. I decided to leave it under his keyboard because my upcoming travels would mean he wouldn’t receive for a week. He told me the next day he preferred it was a surprise. It made his morning and he was happy the rest of the day.
At other times I have left a chat message complimenting their work after the end of a workday for my virtual teammate to find the next day. I’m always happy to see a gigantic happy face be returned the following morning.
5 — See each other as often as possible
When distance separates you from your team, see if there are ways to close the gap of not seeing each other. Meeting face to face could be physically in person or, if not possible, then by video conference. Sarah Hyland tells it like this:
“I think the longest we’ve gone without seeing each other is like two to three weeks, because five days is already too much for us. We always try to make sure to see each other.”Sarah Hyland
In my work, I visit nearby offices a few times per month and that still feels like it’s not enough. For some, it won’t be feasible due to cost and travel time to visit team members weekly. This means the virtual team leader has to use other strategies like leaving love notes or lifting each other more frequently. If there are opportunities to have face time visits however, they should be prioritized as often as budget and time can allow.
6 — Lift each other up
Borrowed lesson from Vanessa Hudgens is to be positive and supportive when you do see each other. It can be easy to launch into complaints about the time you have not had together. Some times it can be about trying to carry on past arguments in person. Instead of doing this, place a higher priority on using the time together to be as positive as possible.
“It’s important to put that other person first. If you’re constantly looking for ways that you can make them happy, and they’re constantly looking for ways that they can make you happy, then you kind of lift each other up as much as possible and you can’t go wrong.” — Vanessa Hudgens
When working with team members in various locations, it is natural for leaders to save constructive feedback discussions for in-person or video meetings. The downside of this approach is face-time gets a negative label. Instead, consider more face time for positive talks. Use a 5:1 ratio for positive vs. negative comments so that even when you need to have a tough conversation, there are still more praises than there are criticisms.
I have started experimenting with a new approach: I initiate a video or audio call to talk about the hard stuff one day in advance of an in-person meetup. I save all of the compliments and accolades for the next day when we meet. It keeps the precious time I have with multi-location team members in a positive and uplifting spirit.
Summary of communication tactics for leading virtual teams
Treat leading distributed teams like long-distance romantic relationships using these strategies:
- Have silly conversations along with the necessary work check-ins
- Consciously make efforts to connect with virtual team members
- Have open dialogues when something is not feeling right
- Create thank you notes that surprise and delight your virtual team members
- Be available for face time meetups at least once a week
- Make the time together positive and elevate your virtual team member’s mood