ver the last ten years I have worked remotely, in matrix organisations, reporting to bosses based in another country and leading geographically and functionally dispersed teams. The challenges that arise in this "ecosystem" amplify those of teamwork and are significant and current, whether because technology can help but also hinder, or because we have not ceased to be the homo sapiens that was evolutionarily formed tens of thousands of years ago, with our brain still favouring everything that brings us closer to life in a tribe, always waiting to be able to see and touch what is important.
Remote working in general (i.e. people working together but in different physical spaces), whether one-off or structural, has a positive impact on a company's employee satisfaction, productivity and costs (Olmstead, 2019). Note that 'presenteeism' (an organisational problem where the employee is physically present, but otherwise detached from their work, emotionally and mentally) does not exist by definition when people work in different spaces. In addition, remote working contributes directly to environmental sustainability by reducing the daily flow of people crossing paths in transport to work (according to various estimates, transport is responsible for around a quarter of the European Union's greenhouse gas emissions).
As far as teamwork is concerned, to these advantages we can add the possibility of increasing the diversity and talent of its members, since its composition is not limited to those who can live in the same location and comply with predetermined schedules.
Remote teams, also called virtual teams, are generally described as culturally diverse, geographically dispersed groups communicating electronically. Some form, change and dissolve quickly, others are more stable over time. Many are matrixed, where functional heads are distinct from the team or project head. Communication failures are fatal in teams of this type, even more so than in teams of physically close members. Technology companies, by their very nature, have invested heavily in this type of organisational model and there are five areas that determine the quality of communication at a distance: trust, interpersonal relationships, cultural differences, leadership and technology (Daim et al, 2012).
In relation to relationships, which are increasingly recognised as important at all levels (in essence, soft-skills do nothing more than nurture them) we are "programmed" to read the non-verbal messages of our peers, with all our senses, and in a remote relationship we are seriously hampered. It takes a great deal of good will, patience and intelligence to overcome the physical and emotional barriers that exist when we cannot meet for a coffee or simply chat about the small matters that weave the fabric of our lives. It is however essential to do so, because the world has changed, the terrain in which we operate is global and we will probably interact with people we will never see except by skype.
Finally, as the immense literature on behavioural psychology has shown, human interactions are based on the model established in the original societies of prehistoric homo sapiens, supported by rituals and community events aimed at social cohesion. A company must necessarily establish and continuously nurture its own culture, which gives it its identity and brings its members together in a cohesive group. This "spiritual" union becomes easier when the environment itself fosters the spirit that is to be propagated. This requires greater effort and intent on the part of the company to integrate remote employees.
Cláudia Brito, EMEA Distribution Director | McCormick & Company
Levi Olmstead, "Seven challenges of managing a remote team and how to overcome them",
May 7, 2019, www.talentlms.com
Tugrul U. Daim, Anita Ha, Shawn Reutiman, Brennan Hughes, Ujjal Pathak, Wayne Bynum, Ashok Bhatla,
"Exploring the communication breakdown in global virtual teams", International Journal of Project
Management 30 (2012) 199-212, Elsevier