Why shared context is vital for effective remote teams
21 Jul 2022
Every team needs context – and an understanding of how they fit into the organisation’s aims – but context is especially important for remote teams.
Remote working did not begin with the COVID-19 pandemic, though it was certainly massively accelerated by the unprecedented shutdown caused by the virus.
In Sweden, up to 30 per cent of people were working from home at least some of the time before the pandemic, though a typical level in most countries was around 10 per cent. What the pandemic showed many companies and their teams was that remote working is often better than office-based structures.
Overwhelmingly, workers say they are as productive or more productive when working remotely at least some of the time. They also said they were happier, with better mental well-being.
It’s not surprising then that two-fifths of employees say they would leave if their organisation went back to a fully on-site working routine.
Remote working shouldn’t be up for debate as to whether it’s successful or not – it’s a no-brainer. Introducing it will make staff happier and more productive and ignoring it will make them more likely to leave. Not only that, remote working brings the added benefit of being able to recruit the best talent from anywhere in the world, rather than being limited to whoever is local.
However, remote teams don’t flourish automatically. Organisations must create the right circumstances in which they can flourish. And the key to that is context.
Context underpins motivation and purpose
Whether in-person or virtual, all teams face three central challenges.
First, they must have a clear goal that every team member understands. Second, they need good communication, so that everyone knows what needs doing, and when. And third, they need context – an understanding of how they, and their team’s goals, fit into the organisation’s overall plan.
We could say that a goal tells the team what they should be doing, communication is central to how they do it, but context gives them the why.
Context underpins motivation, purpose and a sense of shared values. Any team will fail in its objectives without context.
If everyone has a different idea of how they fit the plan and what their focus should be, then they will struggle to work together in a productive way.
In contrast, a shared context helps employees feel part of something beyond their personal goals and makes them more likely to see team success and personal success as the same.
Remote context requires intentional maintenance
If context is that important, then how do you make sure everyone knows what it is?
Context is more easily created for in-person teams because it is often part of the workplace ambience. Gossip at the water cooler, information on notice boards and even where each person’s desk is positioned can all help communicate a sense of context.
On top of that are meetings where senior executives can set out the organisation’s aims and other ‘official’ attempts at communicating context.
But the official ways of creating context are not always very effective. Quarterly emails are skimmed rather than read, and big picture discussions at team meetings can be forgotten amid everyday stresses and deadlines. Leaders get away with neglecting context in face-to-face environments because so much of it happens organically.
Many organisations assumed that context would emerge organically for their remote teams when the COVID-19 pandemic struck. They shifted to working from home but didn’t think about how to provide the context that would help remote teams work effectively. Any organisation that hasn’t moved away from its pandemic home-working processes needs a strategic rethink immediately.
Establishing effective working processes
What does that look like? Entrepreneur and author Giff Constable suggests that all remote teams should meet in person, at least once, so that they have some shared bonding time. If meeting in person is not an option, then other experts in team performance suggest making socialising an agenda item, even if it happens virtually. These days, digital tools such as Slack can be a virtual water cooler.
All of that helps team members think of each other as people, rather than resources to whom tasks can be assigned. Relating to others on that level makes us more likely to want to help them achieve their goals. Alex Pentland, Founder of MIT Connection Science, recommends allocating time each week to one-on-one virtual meetings that foster individual connections. Beyond that understanding, however, the team also needs processes to help them function, day-to-day.
That requires an understanding of the organisational structure, so they know the role of each department, as well as its capacity. They need to agree on appropriate reply times for messages, when team members in different time zones will communicate, and clear objectives for virtual meetings that will determine how people participate. People will expect to interact differently in a brainstorming meeting compared to a project update, for example.
Mindset is the success factor
A level above that is the need to understand deadlines, looming project challenges and the overall strategy of the business. Leaders within the organisation must ensure that they regularly communicate these points.
One way to do that, Mr Pentland suggests, is to adopt the “team of teams” model which places team leaders in a team of their own where they can discuss organisational culture, help each other with communication strategy and ensure that they too have a shared context.
Ultimately, a dispersed team with a common goal and clear context is stronger than an in-person team that doesn’t really know what they are doing or why. The latter is all too common in many organisations. The success factor is team mindset, rather than physical location.
Senior executives must understand that a vital part of their role is providing context and guidance to unite the teams for which they are responsible.
Great teams are distinguished by all-around better communication.
A strong team mindset is more than just virtual parties and shoutouts, it’s about a common goal that everyone works towards, and that’s only achieved with context.