As recently as a couple of years ago, the term “distributed team” used to be used only by business theorists and corporate trainers–people “in the know” about the future of work. Now everyone knows about this term as “remote teams”.
This is a testament to how far things have come in terms of remote and hybrid work. Now these types of work styles have become normalized and to some extent institutionalized as well. Many now expect that we may never go back to a 100% office culture.
There are of course pros and cons to this. The benefits for employees are obvious: more time (almost 13 weeks a year) and more freedom (potentially). And the potential benefits for companies and teams that no longer have to pay for office space is also noteworthy.
Why distributed team development?
However, one thing that both employers and team members lose out on when they switch to remote or hybrid models is team development. That is, they miss out on the shared process of growing together, emphasis on the shared process part.
Many teams do grow and have grown even while working remotely. But I would argue that this growth is more uneven than it appears. It’s simply harder to know where everyone is at all times online, and that makes it harder for teams to grow together.
We’ve talked in other blog posts about the concepts of soft work vs. hard work. Shifting to remote models means giving up spaces like offices where soft work can flourish. That is, spaces for interaction, communication, sharing ideas, and learning together (as opposed to the “hard work” aspects of a job like filing reports, completing projects, closing deals, etc.).
In order to counteract these centrifugal forces, remote teams need to think more consciously and proactively about their development as a whole, as well as ensuring that each member has access to the training and development that they need and require.
This isn’t only about growth and learning in the abstract. Ultimately, teams that grow together will stick together more strongly. Furthermore, team members that receive training, mentorship and development opportunities feel more valued, and are likely to stay on the team. So team development influences retention and team unity too.
3 Principles of distributed team development
To help guide you towards making distributed team development a more prominent part of your online team building, we’ve come up with three major principles that you should think about:
Team equity means that all team members have the same access to the resources they need to succeed and thrive. In the context of team development this means that you want to ensure that team members are growing and learning together as much as possible, and that you are giving each of them the same chances for training, development, and mentorship.
With remote teams, the challenge of providing equity in terms of development becomes even harder since team members are not in the same physical space. Even so, there are many resources online that can help remote teams, including online classes and communication tools. Mentoring, likewise, can also be easily done online with the right preparation and plan.
The main roadblock to equitable distributed team development is simply awareness. You just might not know what someone is feeling, or what kind of training someone may need.
This leads us to our next principle, which is interaction. More frequent and regular Interaction with your team, in which you are communicating and sharing, can help build a sense of mutual awareness, and make team members more likely to notice each other’s development goals and needs.
Interaction on distributed teams can be as simple as having weekly check-ins. Or it can much be more planned and formalized, like a multiple-day online training and team building event.
But the principle of interaction is a critical one for distributed team development. Remote teams don’t have the luxury of naturally-occurring soft work interactions at the office. So they need to put some extra effort and time into creating more ways for their online team to interact with each other.
Ultimately, distributed team development is a learning process, even if that learning is about each other. And I think leaning into the model of learning as a process, rather than a one-shot, do-it-and-get-over-with activity can be useful, especially for remote teams who have to be more clever with their time.
Remember that distributed teams are relatively new, and so really remote teams are on a kind of journey together, and are figuring out how to do this successfully. That means that adding additional learning environments and sessions will be beneficial.
These could include lectures about technology or productivity online. It could be team building workshops, like the ones we provide at Invite Japan, which fuse activities and lectures in an online format. Learning could also be self-directed.
That is, you as a team could take it upon ourselves to host mini-lectures or discussions each week. We do this at Invite Japan. Almost every week, the president of our company facilitates a session using a certain personal growth or tam building model, like PX2 or Anger Management.
Thinking about team development in terms of a learning process can help you figure out a longer-term strategy for your team, as well as make you aware of what extra tools need to be added to your team’s repertoire to help motivate them to succeed.
3 Tips for distributed team development
The above were more goals and abstract principles–things that it’s important to be conscious of when making plans for team developmentIn this last section, we’ll give you some tips for implementing team development and learning plans.
1. Build trust on your team
Trust is the foundation for all team development, both remote and in-person. But especially online, trust is critical. In order for your remote team to continue to grow together, members need to be able to trust each other and know that the team can pick up the slack when needed.
Team members also need to be able to share their feelings and opinions. It can be harder to do this online given the nature of online communication tools–it’s simply harder to express what you actually feel.
Online team building activities will help build trust on your team and allow you to learn and grow together. They can help teams figure out the best ways to communicate and share in online spaces too, and point out possible weaknesses in online teams that they can focus on to create a greater sense of trust.
2. Stay flexible
Remote teams in general require a great degree of flexibility in order to remain productive and successful in general. Team development is no different. Distributed teams need to take advantage of new methods and tools for development, and to be open to trying them.
Flexibility helps build resilience, which can allow teams to face large challenges and crises in the future. So maintaining flexibility in team development can actually help teams in their overall success.
We suggest switching up activities, utilizing both online and in-person team building in order to keep teams on their toes. Improv acting activities can also spur flexibility and teach team members how to react spontaneously to novel situations.
Effective distributed team development requires prioritization of time and resources. Remote teams need to know what to focus on, and what their needs are. From there, they can make calculated decisions as to what kind of training and development to actually do.
There is research to suggest that micromanaging is ineffective, and actually counterproductive in remote teams. This can lead to an unhealthy culture of mistrust and fuel a sense of “overwork” which can counteract some of the benefits of distributed teams.
Therefore, distributed teams need to look closely at which aspects of their development are most important, and to try to create more spaces where the team can develop independently. Finding the right development tool or team building activity is always the most critical step of the process.
Distributed team development may seem like a challenge, but with the right attitude, awareness, and resources, online teams can actively create a shared learning process even while being separated physically.
Invite Japan is here to help your team navigate its team development. We have multiple team building experiences, from outdoor games to 100% online activities. We also have workshops that combine educational lectures and interactive games.