More and more, services organizations of all kinds are relying on what we used to call telecommuters and now refer to as “remote employees.”
I’ve written about the subject before, concentrating on how to make telecommuting work, both for the organization and for its telecommuters. If you’re interested you’ll find the columns here.)
What I didn’t cover in any of them: How services firms, and especially large services firms that extensively rely on a remote workforce, collect them into project “teams,” put them in front of customers for the project kick-off event, maybe take the new “team” to dinner at a nice restaurant, and expect the “team” to function as a team.
I enclosed team in scare quotes because members are left to interact on a basis of trust and alignment to a shared purpose with no basis for either.
What’s truly scary is how few services firms take any steps at all to turn their assemblage of remote employees who have never before met into a functioning team.
What’s only a smidgeon less scary is how often large corporations mimic this services firm worst practice. It’s less scary only because the poor teamwork that results is more visible in internal teams than with those fielded by a vendor.
As is so often the case, the problem begins with the difference between tangible and intangible costs and benefits.
If you aren’t familiar with the terms and what makes them problematic, we covered this ground a month or so ago, in “KonMari and your business.” How it applies here: Bringing remote team members together results in easily recognized expenses: airfare, hotel bills, and meals. They’re tangible costs.
The benefits, in contrast, are intangible: Getting team members together helps them understand who each other are as human beings; it gives them a chance to reconcile hidden assumptions, work styles, perspectives, and particular strengths.
It lets project managers communicate nuances and subtleties about the project’s goals and priorities far beyond what they can accomplish with teleconferences, email, and even web conferences accompanied by PowerPoint.
As a correspondent once put it, email communicates facts, but it doesn’t build teams. Teleconferencing and web conferencing permit the exchange of ideas, but not the connection of co-workers.
I say the benefits of bringing team members face to face are intangible because failing to do so constitutes a risk — something bad that might happen in an uncertain future. Worse, it’s the kind of risk that, even when it turns into reality, still won’t be acknowledged as the cause of the problems in question.
For example, every good project manager recognizes the critical role rapport with the project’s sponsor and governance committee plays every time something unexpected comes up. Project managers can build rapport in direct proportion to the time they spend face to face with these fine folks, and especially the time they spend face to face early in the project, before issues arise.
Second example: Agilistas … practitioners of real Agile methodologies, not “Scrummerfall” variants that replace Agile’s “individuals and relationships over processes and tools” with the exact, polar opposite … recognize the importance of being able to consult, frequently and informally, with product owners, subject matter experts, and end-user representatives throughout development of whatever is being developed.
Unless team members have met these people face to face at least once, the social hurdles that must be overcome to have even one conversation are considerable. Frequent and informal conversations? Good luck with that.
Which is why offshore agile projects rely heavily on on-site business analysts to have these conversations. And that’s okay. It isn’t great, but it’s okay, so long as the business analysts and project team members have had the opportunity to interact face to face.
In the interest of not beating the subject to death and of providing useful solutions, I trust the useful solution is, by now, obvious: If, as a vendor, you’re planning to deploy teams of remote employees, bring them together at the beginning. Specifically, bring them together for a week of orientation and socialization a week before the official project kick-off meeting.
Follow that with three weeks of working together on-site in a bull-pen environment. During this period, schedule as many briefings as possible — sessions in which various project stakeholders explain the current situation and their hopes, concerns, and expectations for the project’s outcomes.
Couple this with a professional-grade, on-demand web conferencing environment. It will be essential for collaboration once the team has been built.
For building the team? Not so much.