Photo of Erica Solari Written By Erica Solari Posted February 8, 2017

Companies are embracing digital tools to efficiently get work done. One outcome of using these tools is that colleagues can easily collaborate across time zones and geographic borders. Though the benefits of this reality generally outweigh the costs, managers may find it daunting to keep track of a dispersed team.

Here are several strategies for bridging the distance between in-person and remote peers:

Maintain constant and open communication.

Break down communication barriers by making sure all team members are virtually available! Encourage the use of instant messaging systems (Slack, Google Hangouts) for continuous collaboration, screen-sharing, and immediate feedback. Use email for larger questions or for official transmittals of information, and establish a rapid response time: commit to at least acknowledging issues escalated via email within twenty-four hours.

Though written communication is convenient, recognize when initiating a live discussion with your team is necessary. Don’t hesitate to set up a phone or video call to work through complex issues together. Keep multiple lines of communication open by bringing the team into the same room, digital or physical, as often as possible.

Always have a backup plan.

The good news about using various channels of communication is that when one system fails, you will have multiple backup options at your disposal. Acknowledge that when connecting to these systems, acceptable audio and visual quality is only partly within the realm of your control. Allow enough time between meetings to test alternate solutions and complete systems setup.

There may be occasions when it’s impossible to establish any viable connection with off-site colleagues. When this happens, evaluate if you are able to make progress with the available team. If so, move forward with the group and circulate notes for absent teammates to review when they’re back online; if not, reschedule the meeting. As hard as it may be, practice patience and flexibility when relying on unpredictable communication methods for team collaboration.

Emphasize personal connections.

For team members to effectively hold each other accountable for dividing and conquering tasks, they must feel some level of personal responsibility to the group as much as to a project. It can be difficult instilling a sense of camaraderie when colleagues don’t have the luxury of chatting informally over lunch. However, with the variety of video conference tools available (Skype, Zoom), it’s quick and often inexpensive to connect with your team. Take the time to get to know each other! Hold meetings that don’t revolve around project discussions: celebrate birthdays and work anniversaries as a group or take virtual coffee breaks together. A little effort in coordinating these activities goes a long way toward improving team cohesion.

Account for regional differences.

When coordinating schedules for a dispersed team, consider regional activities that may impact the entire group. Colleagues spread across different time zones will likely be working standard hours within their time zone, so explicitly set expectations for when team members’ hours should overlap. This is important: there must be at least a few hours daily when everyone is concurrently available! If certain teammates never actively connect, the resulting communication gaps will negatively impact project productivity as well as team unity.

Additionally, holidays may vary between states and countries, so this is another factor to keep in mind when creating project schedules and estimating team capacity. Maintain a public calendar with everyone’s availability and encourage the team to be mindful of cultural and regional diversities.

There are many ways to effectively engage with remote peers, so use trial-and-error to figure out which combination works best for your team. Get creative, be open to suggestions from the group, and invest time in building relationships between all of your colleagues, regardless of their location.