It’s 5:00 pm at my house in Nederland, Colorado, and I remember that I have a 6:00-7:30 pm team meeting. I need to plan the family dinner around it. I head to the kitchen to prep a chicken and vegetables, timing them so they will roast and rest during my meeting and we can sit down to eat as soon as I am done. In Grand Rapids, several team members will join the meeting at 8:00 pm, after their dinners and evening plans. In Hong Kong, it will be 8:00 am and Elise and Yushi will either be at the studio or still at home, since the train commute can take a while. In San Francisco, Meike will likely call in from the Coalesse Studio. The meeting today is “no Paris” since it is 2:00 am there and Beatriz will be sleeping.
At Steelcase, we all understand that the rhythm of a global team is not a perfect 9-5 melody. But understanding something can be very different from living it. My team has grown increasingly distributed across multiple time zones and regions of the world over the last couple of years, and we have learned, through experience and experimentation, a few ways to leverage the value of a global team while also minimizing the pain and disruption it can create for us as individuals. Since this is a shared experience for many multinational teams, I thought I would share five good global team practices we’ve adopted:
- Share the burden of 24/7 across the team. We will never be able to change our human circadian rhythms, even though some of us may be early birds and others night owls. Time separation on a global team presents one of the biggest physical, cognitive, and emotional challenges. Despite all our “understanding” of being a global team, we used to always privilege Grand Rapids (U.S. Eastern Time) in our meeting schedule and make our Asia team members stay up late. Several months ago we started a rotating meeting schedule. Every month, each team member now has one evening, one mid-day, and one early morning meeting, and misses one meeting that falls in the middle of their night. No team member is expected to attend a team meeting between 10 pm and 7 am.
- Schedule consistent meetings to help far-flung people connect. Serendipitous encounters with colleagues around the world are still limited with our current technologies. We have learned that having consistent meetings where people can connect in both formal and informal ways is critical for fostering team cohesion. Our team has weekly meetings to provide this structure – and we make them long enough to allow for technology connection hiccups, formal sharing of project work, and some time for catching up on vacations, travel experiences, or lifestage celebrations like engagements or new babies. We are also prototyping a global “Social Hour” where we are all invited to bring coffee, lunch, or a cocktail –depending on where you are and what time it is—and hang out together on videoconference. Every team needs to think about what may be best for them, but you’ll want more of these checkpoints than you would need for a fully co-located team.
- Use as many collaboration tools as you need to – and constantly search for better ones. The tools available to distributed teams today aren’t perfect. There is no one technology that does everything we need, so we use many of them for different purposes – including Google Drive, DropBox, Spark, and Murally. We have fully adopted Murally (a digital, highly visual sticky note canvas) as a team in the last year and it has dramatically improved our team’s collaboration. We are still searching for the best video conference platform; telepresence is limited since we always have some team members joining from home; Group Skype and Google Hangout are too unstable; GoTo Meeting is more stable but only allows six video feeds and we frequently have ten people joining. We are now turning for a second time to a collaboration tool called Sococo. We’ve found that it takes a lot patience and flexibility to use these tools effectively, and adaptability in swapping out tools in the moment as needed – such as dropping an unstable video connection and switching to conference call because the bandwidth in Hong Kong is experiencing latency.
- Pay extra attention to your colleagues who are on the phone or on video. At Steelcase, we talk a lot about the concept of “presence disparity.” In meetings that bring people together via different communication channels, individual “presences” don’t necessarily have the same weight in the conversation. For example, people in the same room are more likely to talk to each other and forget about the person on the video screen and the person on the speaker phone. Likewise, it’s easier to enter the conversation as a distributed participant on video than from the phone because your visual presence makes it easier to get people’s attention. We are consistently looking for new ways to solve for this reality of modern communications at Steelcase – and yet too often our own teams succumb to its allure by privileging those who are physically present over those who are joining from afar. The most powerful tool for this is awareness – remember the value that your colleagues around the world bring to the table and honor them with consistent inclusion in the conversation. Practice eye contact with people on video, gently pause a passionate conversation in the room and ask the remote participants to chime in, or experiment with equalizing presence by having everyone call into the video conference or conference call individually.
- Invest in bringing the team together on a regular rhythm to foster team cohesion. No tool can replace being together in the same room. I bring my globally dispersed team together twice a year for workshops, which have proven invaluable for renewing personal ties, building trust, and having unmediated and embodied experiences together. I have three rules for these workshops: We should build something together, we should learn something together, and we should have plenty of informal, social time. I also use these times for us to engage in team strategic discussions or decision-making, since it’s much more effective to reach alignment around complex issues when we are in the same room. Recently, we all gathered in Paris for our spring workshop and accomplished all of those goals. We finalized our team goal for the coming fiscal year and developed our integrated team plan with clear alignment to our corporate strategy and fiscal year priorities (we built something together). We spent an afternoon envisioning our team future through an experimental theatre exercise developed at Otto Scharmer’s Presencing Institute at MIT and another afternoon visiting a museum (we learned together). Finally, we ate a lot of good French food and tasted some local wines too (we had informal, social time). The travel costs for these two weeks every year spurs our team’s performance for the other 50 weeks. A smart travel budget is a necessary component for a high-performing, globally integrated team.
All of these different approaches add up to increasing our team’s empathy for one another. This compassion fuels trust, engagement, and collaboration – and drives our business forward.