In the past, new managers often had the luxury of cutting their teeth on traditional collocated teams: groups of people, sitting down the hall from one another, who met up in conference rooms to hash out what they were trying to achieve and how to get there. Unfortunately, today’s increasingly global work environment does not always afford that luxury. Many first-time managers find themselves assigned to a team of subordinates scattered far and wide.
Managing a distributed team can feel overwhelming as it requires you to navigate many different types of distance: geographic, temporal, cultural, linguistic, and configurational (the relative number of members in each location). Every one of these dimensions affects team dynamics and, therefore, has an impact on effectiveness and performance as well. Daunting as that may seem, there is good news in the form of a large and ever-increasing body of research and best practices on how to increase your odds of success. But first, it’s important to understand which aspects of team dynamics are, and are not, affected by distance.
The effects of distance
While all of the different types of distance listed above affect us, they do so primarily through two core mechanisms: shared identity and shared context. Understanding these will help you develop a much more targeted plan of attack for managing from afar.
Further Reading: HBR Guide to Leading Teams Ebook + Tools
First, distance affects how you feel about people. Dealing with the types of distance listed above (often grouped together and labeled “locational”) triggers a sense of “social distance” – an unshared sense of identity, or a feeling of “us vs. them.” A lack of a shared identity has a far stronger impact on team dynamics than any of the types of distance individually. In an experimental field study I conducted with Michael O’Leary, for example, we showed that unshared identity arising from social distance increased coordination problems and reduced group cognition in the form of transactive memory. When teams function with high levels of transactive memory, they know where different knowledge is held in the team and how to access it. For instance, if everyone knows that Hector is a talented forecaster, the team will save time by assuming that Hector is responsible for any new information regarding forecasting. When transactive memory is impaired, however, the efficiency of the group suffers.
Similarly, a study conducted with Pamela Hind found that this sense of us-vs.-them significantly increased levels of conflict within the global R&D teams of a Fortune 500 petroleum firm (in fact, a top five Fortune 500 company).
Second, distance affects what you know about people. Catherine Cramton refers to this concept as “the mutual knowledge problem,” but put simply, it means that you don’t know what they know – and vice versa. Why does this matter? Because a shared sense of context, a shared understanding of not only what you do but how you do it and why, is a key driver of your ability to coordinate and collaborate. Teams with a shared understanding are more efficient. They don’t waste time ensuring everyone is on the same page and they have fewer issues with miscommunication. In the R&D team study mentioned above, we found that unshared context was a particularly strong driver of task-based conflict, or disagreements over the work being done.
Taken together, this means that when assessing the effects of distance on your team, you need to keep in mind both how you feel, and what you know, about your distant colleagues.
Though it may come as a bit of a surprise, distance doesn’t change the fundamental rules of the game. A global virtual team is first and foremost a team — just because yours is distributed doesn’t mean you should discard the prevailing wisdom about how the most effective teams operate. You need to arm yourself with a good model of team effectiveness and use it to assess and improve team dynamics and processes. A model provides structure and will help you organize your efforts as you tackle management for the first time. This is especially important for those who are dealing with the added complexities of distance.
Managing the effects of distance
First things first: don’t panic. Remember that global, virtual, distributed teams are composed of people just like any other team. The more you and your team members can keep this in mind, the better your results will be. As the manager, encourage everyone to engage in some perspective taking: think about how you would behave if your roles were reversed. This is a small way of reminding your team that collaboration isn’t magic, but it does take some effort.
Second, remember the basics. Arm yourself with a well-tested model of team effectiveness and use it to help structure your thinking. There are, of course, many models out there. For me, J. Richard Hackman’s Team Effectiveness Model is an excellent starting point. It’s based on a massive amount of rigorous research across a wide range of teams. This model stresses the importance of the team goal. Building on Hackman’s work, my own research (paired with evidence collected in executive classrooms) shows that if you do only one thing, ensuring that the team’s goal is clear, challenging, consequential, and commonly-held yields the biggest benefit. This holds true whether your subordinates are down the hall or around the globe.
In the end, being mindful about your team process is more important than which particular model you choose. Take that model and use it to assess how you’ve done, where you stand, and where you are going.
Third, think (and talk) about how to overcome the negative effects that a lack of shared identity and shared context can have.
To help your team combat us-vs.-them thinking, reinforce what is shared: the team’s purpose. All teams are designed to achieve something and if the team is designed well, team members depend on one another to accomplish their goal. Remind your team that you are all working to the same end and that you need each other to get there. Doing so at the outset and intermittently throughout the project will help you build a strong sense of shared identity.
A shared understanding comes from sharing information. Team members working at a distance need to make an effort to understand what is happening in each person’s local context. Importantly, that includes information not only about the work being done but also about the environment in which people are working (ex. structural changes, office politics, even personal life events). All of these affect the psychology of your dispersed colleagues and, therefore, how they react to you and the rest of the team.
One last note — it’s easy to get fixated on either information or interpersonal dynamics to the exclusion of the other but that paints an incomplete picture. You need to consider the effects of both and how they reinforce one another. I always encourage team managers to have regularly scheduled check-ins not just to measure progress towards the team’s goal but to discuss both its context (what it knows) and identity (who it is).