As technologies develop further, transport links make our world seem smaller and global business transactions become the norm, we are seeing more and more dispersed and distributed teams come into being. Writing for AALL, Doug Southard speaks of fifteen Researchers, located in nine different offices across four different countries at law firm WilmerHale, showing just how geographies and time differences seem to no longer be a boundary when it comes to international business.
The benefits to be had from distributed library teams can be tremendous - from more specialised staff to round the clock supply of information services and greater opportunity to share knowledge and experiences. However, taking full advantage of such opportunities is no mean feat. Communications within the same building can be difficult at times, and this task becomes exponentially more difficult when cultural differences, fragmented timezones and lack of face-to-face conversation are taken into account.
Thankfully, in the 21st century there are a whole host of tools to utilise and experiences to learn from to help you on your way to realising your team’s full potential. In her AALL article published earlier this summer "Managing Technical Services Long Distance", Sarah Lin recommended a number of different methodologies by which to do so - clear methodologies, best use of technology, informal and formal meetings, the value of water cooler talk and building relationships through face-to-face contact. We explore these below alongside Linex's own suggestions.
Clear procedures and best practices - setting clear goals for everyone
Being responsible for a distributed team means that, for the most part, you won’t have a clear overview of what your team are doing throughout the day. The same goes for your dispersed team members - they are unable to see how specific tasks are managed, how problems are overcome and what your best practices are.
As Sarah Lin recommends in her excellent AALL article "Managing Technical Services Long Distance", to get around this issue it is imperative that you have a clear set of established procedures and best practices that are developed by and for your team. Not only can this be used as an ‘icebreaker’ collaborate exercise with your staff getting to know each other better but it will also provide them with a clear point of reference and guidance as to how they are expected to work, and what goals they are working to achieve. Plus, your team’s direct involvement in the creation of these documents means that their implementation is far more likely to be successful.
Technology - knowing what to use, how and when
We are lucky enough to now have at our fingertips an endless list of different communication tools to use. However, using too many tools can defeat the purpose entirely. The majority of library teams need just three and each of these tools have different purposes, and different manners by which to use them:
1. A chat tool, such as Slack or Flowdock
This is excellent for when a more natural conversation style is appropriate, such as when you just need to ping a quick question to a colleague and need a short swift response. It can also be more appropriate for group chats, meaning that you are able to avoid having an endless stream of emails flying around.
2. An email system, likely whatever your firm has chosen
Emails tend to be more relevant for more formal project discussions and conversations that require a little more thought and planning in their response. Typically, email conversations are the ones that you are more likely to need to keep on record, to search back through at a later date.
3. A web conference tool with screen sharing facilities, such as GoToMeeting
You can never underestimate the power of a face-to-face conversation, and for distributed teams video conferencing is the closest to this we can get. The power of video conference really comes into its own for holding team meetings and one-on-one catchups, as well as when working on joint projects as screen sharing facilities mean you are able to view the exact same screen in real time, almost as good as working together in the same office space.
Other ideas for collaborative technologies include cloud-based platforms, where users are able to see what their colleagues have been working on and share pre-made structures to save time.
Meetings - the formal, and the informal
Open communication channels is always the most important ingredient to any team’s success, and regular structured meetings are an integral part of this. For many, the word ‘meeting’ fills the stomach with dread, anticipating another lengthy period of too much talk and not enough doing. Thankfully, there are a range of innovative methods working to change this status quo.
The most talked about practice of the moment is, undoubtedly, scrum methodology. One of the core practices of scrum is holding daily stand up meetings where team members present what they did yesterday, what they will be doing today and any blockers they are facing - giving the space for colleagues to step in and offer their support where fitting. Not only does such a practice give you the opportunity to assess your employees’ daily work but it also, essentially, encourages team collaboration and support, even when that team is spread across the globe.
It’s also helpful to hold a weekly full team meeting where members give a brief summary of their last week, and the week ahead. Rather than using these to manage projects, it’s best to keep them simply to enable everyone to be kept in the loop and for all your team members to see each other’s faces, essential when everyone might not work with each other on a regular basis, you can use other more targeted meetings to go into depth on specific projects. Try and shake things up by cutting these from the traditional hour to half an hour to encourage brief to keep things brief.
Water cooler talk - it’s actually quite useful
Whether you’re holding a meeting, drafting an email or messaging someone on your chat system, starting with a little bit of polite conversation goes a long way in a distributed team.
"You'd never walk into someone's office or cubicle and just start talking!"
Sarah Lin, writing for AALL
The same goes for in a virtual space. Make sure that you and your team make that little bit of extra effort to ask your coworkers how they are doing, how was their weekend, how’s the family. That little bit of extra engagement helps to establish a more trusting, sustainable professional relationship.
Building relationships - the importance of face-to-face contact
When looking to establish long term open communications within your distributed team, strong relationships act as an essential foundation, and there is no better way to build these than through some time spent face-to-face. Making distributed companies choose to invest in company retreats, highlighting the importance of team bonding and collaboration. Although often a pricey investment, retreats do tend to be worth it in the long run. Other options include regular employee visits to satellite and head offices, with social activities run alongside in the evenings.
Spending this time together ‘in real life’ enables your library members to break down any cultural barriers that might hinder in their communication, as well as providing a valuable space to share past experiences, lessons learnt and best practices between teams.