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Establishing a Culture That Supports Distributed Teams

As a contact center leader, the results you create—internally and for your customers—depend on being able to get support from people who work at different times, in different places, or within different parts of the organization.

If you are in a customer service leadership role, you most likely have the responsibility of getting results from people that work in different locations, don’t report to you, or don’t work the same hours. Today’s communications capabilities have encouraged and enabled organizations that span geography and time—multi-site environments, cross-functional teams and extended hour or 24x7 operations are common contact center examples. 

Distributed team

But technology hasn’t eliminated the natural barriers that exist between people who work in distributed environments. People who work in different places and/or at different times can have trouble seeing themselves as an integral part of a larger team. Fortunately, there are some tried and true principles that can significantly increase your organization’s effectiveness. Among the most important:

1. Cultivate trust. Many leadership experts have identified trust as the secret sauce that enables organizations to work well. But how do you build trust in a virtual team? One simple but important step is to create opportunities for people to get to know each other. I recall the contact center manager who set up an internal Web page profiling the members of a multi-site team, then gave everyone a short quiz on the interests and backgrounds of the other members; others have posted short, informal video interviews. It's also vital to ensure that everyone gets key information at the same time and that all are abreast of major decisions.

2.  Listen actively and regularly. There is a pervasive myth that great leaders create compelling visions from particularly gifted perspectives or inner creativity. And yet, studies have shown that the visions of some of history’s greatest leaders often came from others. The leaders may have selected the best vision to focus on, shaped it and communicated it to others in a compelling way, but they rarely originated the vision. The point: Be a superb listener. Develop both formal and informal channels of communication to gain access to the ideas and insights of others. (Here’s more from leadership expert Warren Bennis on this principle)

3. Leverage communications technologies. A prerequisite to a productive distributed work group is that the members of the group have and use compatible and capable communications capabilities. While requiring some basic rules and cultural adaptation in a contact center, tools that enable instant messaging, collaboration and status updates are delivering enormous benefits. And be sure to establish an always-updated online contact directory.

4. Develop internal response time expectations. Distributed work groups need some ground rules that stipulate levels of priority and appropriate responses, for A) urgent issues requiring immediate response, B) routine messages requiring response within, say, the day, and C) non-urgent informational messages that require no response. Messages should adhere to well-worn rules, i.e., they should have descriptive subjects, and should be written like a news story with headlines, succinct main points second and then necessary supporting details. Interpersonal feedback, negative or complex information that is nuanced should, as a rule, be communicated in a channel that is as close to face-to-face and interactive as possible (in-person, video, or phone).

5. Eliminate unnecessary bureaucracy. Distributed groups in particular are prone to encounter unworkable rules, policies and procedures. Getting things done efficiently and effectively requires constant review of the processes in place. The team, with the leader’s encouragement, should regularly and vigilantly look for ways to eliminate (or, at least, minimize) the impact of unnecessary hierarchies and cumbersome bureaucracies. (For an interesting and uncommon example, see how Zappos transitioned to no job titles)

6. Consistently communicate progress. It’s vital to keep the group updated and on the same track. This takes time and work on the part of the leader, but is so important! Project management tools (flow charts, PERT charts, status updates, etc.) can be useful for identifying resources required, showing the inter-related nature of individual tasks, and tracking progress… but don’t underestimate short, sharp updates by video, phone/web conference, or email (archived and accessible for those who can’t attend at the time).

7. Create a compelling vision. Yes, this should probably be at the top of the list. But I believe vision really gels when some of the basics are in place. At the least, these 7 steps are interrelated and ongoing—they work best together. Many organizations have mission and vision statements that have little bearing on actions. But creating an effective vision, one that is alive and dynamic, is absolutely essential to managing a distributed team.  Vision begins by asking and answering key questions, e.g., What are we trying to achieve? How will the organization and all who depend on it—customers, employees, shareholders—benefit from our success? How do individual members contribute to overall results? A clear focus that is championed by the leader is a prerequisite to pulling people in and aligning actions.

The challenges of leading a distributed team are real and ongoing. But being part of an environment in which people successfully work together across distance and time is a deeply rewarding professional experience. And given the growing importance of customer experience, it is also one of the most necessary.

Please drop me a note with your stories, comments, feedback… I’d love to hear from you.