Illustration of six different people working from home at desks, chairs, or hammocks.

Remote work—working from home, in particular—is the new reality for many of us around the world. COVID-19 has forced businesses to make the shift, and while remote work is really nothing new, the scale of use has certainly changed.

This comes with challenges and opportunities.

To be truly effective as a member of a remote team, or to lead one, we need to understand how to mitigate the challenges of distance. Not just geographic distance, but the other kind. The kind that can have an even greater impact on motivation and productivity.

Social distance.

Understanding how both geographic and social distance impact your team is the first step toward working together effectively.

The Truth about Geographic Distance

Geographic distance has less of an impact than it used to, but it’s still a factor. Whether you’re working with teammates in the same city or in a different city halfway around the world, consider the impact of space and time.

Some members of the remote team may have better internet connections, owing to city or national telecom infrastructure, or they may be in a country that blocks a particular app.

Then there are time differences to consider—a major concern with global teams. A time zone difference of even a few hours can wreak havoc on scheduling and productivity. This only worsens when team members are scattered among Tokyo, London, and San Francisco.

Social Distance (Minus the “ing”)

First off, we are not talking about social distancing, which is on the minds of many of us as we face the coronavirus.

Instead, social distance represents the gaps we may feel with team members due to differences such as language ability, national or corporate culture, or power dynamic. Each of these can impact a team and create social distance.

Language Differences
Remote teams, particularly global ones, work more smoothly when everyone speaks one common language at similar levels of ability. While not every member need be a native speaker, gaps in ability bring challenges. This can be an issue even for a multicultural workforce within a single country.

Cultural Differences
There are many aspects to culture. Nations, regions, companies, and even teams can have their own distinct cultures and ways of doing things. But these can be particularly challenging because many of us aren’t aware of our own cultural binders and how our ideas of “common sense” may not have so much in common with others.

Power Balance
Social distance can be highly impacted by the real or perceived power imbalances between work locations or members of a team. There is an obvious vertical power imbalance between a manager and direct reports. But there can also be horizontal power imbalances between members with different functions, HQ proximity, and budgets. Imbalances like these can have a huge impact on trust and team dynamics.

Locating Your Team’s Distances

To understand how both types of distance affect a team, it helps to visualize them. Then we can develop tools, processes, and norms to shrink those gaps and ensure we have a high-performing team.

A simple 2X2 matrix is all it takes.

Simple graph of social distance vs geographic distance
Different kinds of distance (geographic and social) can cause different kinds of problems for remote work management.

Where does your team fall on this chart? What challenges might come to its quadrant? Think about that before thinking about countermeasures.

While it may seem that a team in the bottom-left quadrant (collocated, low social distance) is inherently better off, that may not be the case. These teams may be less innovative due to lack of diversity. They may be more burdened by groupthink, assumptions, or cognitive biases. Their corporate or national culture may get them stuck thinking about the “right” way of doing things.

Teams with high diversity and higher social distance are more likely to have members who will challenge each other and create new ideas. While they can be more difficult to manage, once harnessed, such teams will outperform others in creativity and innovation.

Tailoring Countermeasures to Geographic Distance

We often think of technology as our first way to manage geographic distance. Tools like Zoom, Slack, Microsoft Teams, Skype, WebEx, or Google Hangouts are essential.

But the truth is, these won’t help much if some people have limited connectivity or government firewalls.

Sometimes email and a telephone are more effective than the most modern messaging app or videoconferencing system. Consider the local situation of each team member when deciding what tools to use and how to use them.

Remember, too, that apps and tools can’t change the length of a day or reduce timezone differences. Consider which tasks need to be done synchronously, in real-time. For these, use Zoom or a telephone call. For others, email should do the trick.

And of course, there are non-technical solutions to managing time zone differences. This is where leadership and understanding of your team come into play.

One thing I like to do is to ask each member of the team to identify what time of the day they are most productive. What is their chronotype? People tend to fall into one of three:

  • Lark (morning person)
  • Owl (evening person)
  • Hummingbird (active at all times of the day)

A lark and an owl in Tokyo will be productive at different times and so may not collaborate as effectively. But a lark in Tokyo and owl in New York will be in sync and can collaborate more effectively. Plan meetings and tasks around these behavioral styles as much as possible.

And of course, try to mix up the meeting times so that one region is not always feeling the pain. Sometimes Tokyo may have to get up early or stay up late. Other times have New York take that on to give the Tokyo team a break.

Shrinking Social Distance

We can use both technology and leadership to narrow social distance gaps, as well.

Embrace the Visual
When we see people, we trust them. Visual connection can help bridge cultural divides. Some cultures are more expressive non-verbally, so having that video window open during a call gives you a way to better appraise the mood of the team… Just be sure to let everyone know about it in advance so they can dress appropriately!

Make Time to Communicate
When you can’t bump into your remote colleagues in the elevator or hallways, you need to make opportunities to communicate. Set-up one-on-one calls to catch up, have informal chats on your messaging system, or even have the entire team together on a call once a week for coffee. This isn’t to discuss work, but to focus on building the human connection.

Create a Team Agreement
A team agreement is a document which spells out team goals and operations. How will you communicate? Make decisions? Assign roles and responsibilities? Having this written down—with the input of the team—can reduce miscommunication and misunderstanding, as well as bond the team around a common goal. It’s especially effective with colleagues from high-context cultures, like Japan, as it leaves nothing open to misinterpretation.

If necessary, a language policy can be part of the agreement. Set expectations for what languages the team will use. Each member can then alter their behavior accordingly: fluent speakers may need to slow down and speak less dominantly, while less-fluent speakers may need to speak up more. Remote work is here to stay. In fact, it will only become more important. Now is the time to think about how geographic and social distance impact your team. Start taking action to counter any challenges today, and you will position yourself and your organization for future success.