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Building and Managing Geographically Dispersed Teams, by Cathy Bolger, PhD
"My biggest frustrations in working as part of a remote team are the lack of trust, accountability to others, and lack of working toward a common goal."—Member of geographically dispersed team
Similar challenges are found managing and building both co-located and geographically dispersed teams—only dispersed teams require more management and communication, and they often get less.

Indeed, if the research from Rainmakerthinking, Inc., an international consulting firm, is correct about the epidemic of undermanagement, the effectiveness of dispersed teams is open to questions.

Indeed, results of a study conducted by Rainmakerthinking, Inc. reported in a keynote speech by founder Bruce Tulgan, included a lack of:

  • Clear performance parameters and deadlines.
  • Accurate monitoring of performance.
  • Feedback and guidance.
  • Fair distribution of rewards/detriments.
So what must dispersed team members do to make sure they are involved in a team that is high performing? When compiling "lessons learned" from a dispersed team, team expert Rita Sterling of Sterling Insights found the following to be important to success:
  • Clear expectations of the lead
  • Shared view of what the project should look like
  • Clarity about each person's role in completion of the project
  • Adequate time commitments from each member
  • Agreed upon norms around communication
According to the research of John Adams, PhD, Director of the Organizational Systems Program at Saybrook, in order to be high performing, dispersed teams must be customer-centric, and must include members committed to common, clear, agreed on guidelines, roles and responsibilities. Adams also found high team spirit, including trust and respect to be important.

The authors of The Distance Manager also believe that one of the keys to the success of a dispersed team is members who stay well connected. The foundation for staying connected is an agreement on how and how often to communicate. This would include an awareness of the preferences of individual team members, email, voice, telephone, written word, etc.

In addition, most resources cited the importance of the startup to the success of the team. According to the authors of The Distance Manager, "Perhaps no other factor is as critical to a dispersed team's long-term success as a good start-up." It is highly desirable that the start-up be created with all members present, in person.

Outcomes of an effective start up would include a clear mission statement, team norms, clear roles and responsibilities, and the start of building rapport and trust among members. Rita Sterling, team expert mentioned above, emphasizes the importance of rapport building. She believes one way to improve rapport is to find ways team members can discover commonality. One possibility is to place all team member profiles online. In addition to name, work location, job overview and background/expertise, these profiles could include needs and interests.

Telecommuting expert, Maggi Payment of the Center for WorkTime Options in San Diego, reminds us that not only is effective management crucial to all teams, and especially dispersed or virtual teams, effective "Managing Up" is also crucial. In other words, everyone has to try harder at clarifying roles, responsibilities and expectations, both the team lead and the team members.

To improve "Managing Up," Payment suggests "people who don't see the boss often, if ever, need to make sure they keep the boss informed of their progress on the priorities they have agreed on." Payment continues, a good way to train the boss to increase trust is to use weekly updates called 15/5. Take 15 minutes at the end of the week to write out what you accomplished on each priority, what challenges you foresee, what you need from your boss (and by what date) and anything else the boss should know. Distill the information to only take five minutes of the boss's time. At the end of the five-minute update, ask if there is something else the boss needs to tell you.

The team member quoted at the beginning of the article suggests, "Managers need to be proactive—keep open the lines of communication and make the team a priority. Everyone on the team needs to be accountable to each other.Everyone needs to be working towards the common goal. Regular meetings should be scheduled for updates and team building, usually via teleconference, but quarterly in person meetings should also take place.

More and more of the team members we coach and train are members of geographically dispersed teams. With the added challenge of different time zones, cultures, and ways of doing things, the skills trainers teach are essential to high performance of teams.

Fisher, Kimball and Maureen Duncan Fisher. The Distance Manager. McGraw-Hill, 2001.
Jude-York et al. Virtual Teaming. Crisp Publications, 2000.
Kossler, Michael E. and Sonya Prestridge. Leading Dispersed Teams, Center for Creative Leadership. 2004.

Cathy Bolger is a San Diego-based consultant specializing in Presentation, Meeting and Conflict Management skills. She can be reached at 619-294-2511 or Cathy@CathyBolger.com.

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