Sunday, 22 March 2020

Seven Tenets of Successful Dispersed Teams During COVID-19 and Beyond

Tim Stahl, VP, Employee Experience
Innovation / Strategy

How to Work From Home During COVID-19 and Beyond

Everyone is talking about COVID-19. It is changing our daily lives in so many ways, including how we do business. Many people are working from home for the first time, but remote work is not new to everyone. In fact, the dispersed team trend has been growing steadily over recent months and years, driven in part due to individual preference and in part by companies that are committed to hiring the right people regardless of geographical constraints. 

This shift has transformed our work environments. We are no longer confined to the office. Thanks to technology and operational innovations, people are able to work from home offices, on the go, and at coffee shops. Today, we’re focusing less on finding a work/life balance and more on finding smart, effective ways to integrate work into our lives. And this trend doesn’t seem to be slowing down any time soon. Gartner predicted recently that by 2023, fewer than one-third of digital workers will select the corporate office as their preferred place to work. We can only imagine that this will accelerate quickly once the current crisis is behind us. Virtual may be the new normal for many of us.


This new paradigm demands that companies adapt to changing employee needs and expectations. It invites forward-thinking organizations to empower employees to work wherever and whenever necessary through specific digital, physical, and cultural adaptation. In turn, that demand applies pressure to strengthen the way dispersed teams work across digital channels in a virtual environment. It’s not enough to make remote work possible. You need to take specific steps to make remote work successful. 

No matter where and how a team is working together, it needs to be composed appropriately to enable positive outcomes. Virtual or physical, the basics remain the same: a compelling direction, a strong structure, and a supportive context.


We have established seven tenets for effective, meaningful collaboration across dispersed teams. These touchstones help teams reduce friction and empower individuals to bring their best work to bear, regardless of the situation. Some of these guidelines apply additional rigor to imperative processes. Others employ modern digital workspace tools and collaboration software in concert with cultural and physical adaptation. The goal is to ensure that the entire workforce is well equipped and the company is providing full support so that employees can be as productive, efficient, and happy as possible whenever the need arises to work away from the traditional office setting.

Seven Tenets for Effective Dispersed Teams:

Tenet 1: Pay extra attention to the basics.

Working with a team that isn’t in the same room changes a lot, but successful execution is usually less about wild new innovation and more about getting back to the basics of good project management and delivery processes. Managing a distributed team well requires a really strong internal project kickoff. 

Project managers and pursuit teams need to come to the kickoff ready to excite and motivate the delivery team. This isn’t a time to regurgitate the scope or waste time going over boring details. Focus on the mission, provide clearly defined goals, and energize the team. 

Likewise, delivery teams need to come to the kickoff ready to hit the ground running. They need to read the scope and estimates beforehand and be ready with relevant questions and ideas. 

It’s also a smart idea to establish a well-defined code of conduct for communications: when to use chat, when an email is appropriate, when it makes more sense to pick up the phone, what is the right balance of meetings, how long should meetings run, and so forth. 

Tenet 2: Use digital tools to enhance your connection.

Digital communication is a learned skill. Sometimes, it can feel like its own language. They key to helping team members communicate effectively is to be aware of the differences between in-person and virtual interaction. For instance, digital communication tools can mask the intention and humanity of the people involved, so it’s a good idea to allow for some work and social interaction to help build team camaraderie. It’s also helpful to preface digital conversations with some context. When you’re chatting or talking with someone remote, you don’t know whether they are sitting at their desk or running to a meeting. Understanding where they are and what they are doing in the moment helps mitigate miscommunication. 

Tenet 3: Exhibit good meeting etiquette.

If you think in-person meetings are the bane of your existence, meetings that include remote team members can quickly become even more complex and challenging. When working with a distributed team, it’s even more important to follow basic meeting best practices:

  • Always have a clear purpose and agenda.

  • Be on time.

  • Encourage all participants to be stationary and in front of a computer (versus being mid-commute or otherwise on the go).

  • Be efficient with people’s time—excuse people after they’ve made their contributions, suggest side conversations when appropriate to keep the meeting on course.

In addition, there are a few other guidelines to follow for distributed teams:


  • Vary meeting times so that no one time zone takes the brunt of too-early or too-late call times.

  • Provide every employee with excellent headphones to improve audio quality, and make sure they are using them instead of depending on the mic and speakers on their computer.

  • Make sure everyone has a reliable internet connection.

  • Define video call etiquette and stick to it—ask participants to mute when they are not speaking, keep their video on, and stay engaged. 

  • Be considerate of individual availability. It is easy to end up overbooking people in this virtual environment – being in meetings from the beginning to the end of the day gives them little or no time to step away from their desk. More now than ever, a change of scenery once in a while is vital to keeping people sane.

Tenet 4: A picture is worth a thousand words. Use your webcams.

Speaking of video and staying engaged, make good use of your computer’s camera to maximize face-to-face time with meeting participants. Up to 10,000 non-verbal cues can be exchanged in one minute of face-to-face interaction; and all that information is lost without a video interface. Having people on video has many benefits:

  • Encourages people to listen more attentively

  • Removes eye rolls and other body language detractors

  • Adds positivity to the experience through human interaction

  • Improves communication by adding access to body language

  • Reduces the potential for multitasking during meetings

Another pro tip: If one person in a meeting will be dialing in remotely, have everyone dial in remotely, even if they are in next door offices. If everyone has the same experience, communication is improved. 

Tenet 5: Get creative with communication.

Distributed teams have to become excellent communicators, and this can be a lot easier with the right tools and culture. Tools like Zoom, Slack, and Microsoft Teams provide a great opportunity to strengthen day-to-day and long-term communication. In addition to those digital conversations and formal meetings, you might also consider scheduling informal office hours that provide colleagues with a chance to talk without any specific agenda. While efficiency is obviously a goal of any team, there’s also great value in giving employees the time to get to know each other both professionally and personally. It doesn’t always have to be about the deadline at hand; sometimes it’s great just to learn more about people’s interests and what motivates them. 

On a cultural note, it’s always wise to be mindful of your words, especially when communicating virtually without the benefit of body language and other visual cues. 

Tenet 6: Deputize local leadership across your project.

Another way to support distributed resources is to establish a network that includes a centralized “sheriff” and local “deputies.” Ideally, this structure helps resources by providing them a location-specific lead, and it also creates efficiencies around work allocation, resource management, and risk/issue management. The key to success in this kind of scenario is to ensure close communication between the sheriff and deputies. Daily checkpoints can be a good way to ensure that key decisions and direction are always consistently shared. 

Tenet 7: Treat this as a glass ball — take care of the project and the team.

A “glass project” is one that is inherently fragile for some reason—the client, underlying technology, time constraints, etc. Success with a glass project is more likely if you have frequent reviews with an outside resource like delivery leadership or a center of excellence position. You’re basically looking for a second set of eyes—someone to help coach and guide the team while providing general oversight. This can improve the overall delivery and team health, especially when we are not interacting with one another in-person.

Adaptability is critical to business success. 

Many companies have been naturally evolving toward a more dispersed workforce model. Many others have been thrust into this new paradigm as the result of the COVID-19 pandemic. In either case, short- and long-term success depends on a well thought out and intentional approach to this new way of working. Taking the time to understand the different dynamics that come into play when managing a remote team is a great place to start. From there, you can build out your team structure, workflows, communication strategies, and everything else you need to ensure your team’s ongoing success. 

Human to human support - we’re here to help. 

We’ve been the industry leader in solving for these very challenges for over a decade. We are living this situation alongside all our clients and partners, so we have created materials that include detailed guidance including support items and even free tools in hopes of supporting our community and solving the biggest challenges we are facing today. We are all in this together. Let us know how we can help.