Coaching Distributed Teams
Mar 16, 2020
Peter Maddison

As the world goes into lockdown due to COVID-19 and organizations are asking their employees to work from home, new problems arise. Not least of which being whether the organizations we work for can handle the implications of everybody suddenly working from home.

The majority of my work is predominantly done remotely with the exception being when I am directly involved in team coaching or running workshops. I’ve also worked with and coached international teams and can understand the difficulties it raises. This is not a new problem, but it is one that is certainly front of mind as we scramble to deal with this crisis. Not everybody will thrive in a home environment, and at the very least, there is a period of adjustment. First, we need the necessities of internet connection, workspace setup and ensuring they can access the organizational system they need. Beyond that, for those people who usually do not to work-from-home, how do you handle coaching your suddenly distributed teams?

So, without further ado, and an awkward bumping of elbows, here are some thoughts on where to start.

Home Office

Talk about more than work

One of the most common objections to work-from-home is the lack of daily interactions between people. We need to create a space for all those hallway and watercooler decisions to occur. The reality is that without putting effort into the task, they likely will not occur. What is more, they happen because people build rapport with one another, something that does not occur naturally in a work-from-home environment.

If you thought communication was important in the office environment, it is doubly so in the work-from-home environment. People need an outlet to exchange ideas and discuss them. To help with this, scheduling time to get on a video call once a week and just catch-up can be very effective.

Diversify communication

Not only is ensuring conversation is not only about work important, it is also essential that there are reliable channels to communicate over. E-mail alone will not cut it. Persistent chat room capabilities such as Microsoft Teams or Slack are valuable to ensure people can get hold of each other.

Try to put everybody on a level playing field

Dialling into a meeting room full of people discussing and presenting has to be managed well. It rarely works as it is often hard for the person on the phone to follow along with events. One way to overcome this is to decide that if one person is remote, everybody is remote. Having everyone on the same footing helps ensure everybody can contribute in the same way. This applies even when back in the office!

Prioritise outcomes

Focus on the outcomes is even more essential in a work-from-home scenario. There are often many more distractions and moving past that to look at the work itself is critical. Employees need to clearly understand what is expected of them and be able to work independently. This may require documenting and communicating work differently. Reviewing or defining a definition-of-done for your team can help keep people on track.

Conclusion

In summary, when switching to a work-from-home environment with a distributed team:

  • Schedule a weekly meeting just to chat, preferably with video
  • Don’t rely solely on e-mail
  • If one person is remote, try to have everybody remote
  • Focus on the outcomes

The reality is that in most organizations, distributed teams are already reasonably typical and often even more highly distributed across countries. Where international teams bring with them additional challenges involving time zones and culture that will need to be addressed, the focus above is on what “local”, newly distributed, teams will need. Of course, having expert coaching on hand can significantly ease the transition and keep your teams productive.

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