The new year is a great time to ask some fundamental questions about how your project team works together and what needs to change. It's not that there's anything special about January 1, except that in most of the world it is an artificial, socially imposed time of reflection. A pragmatic (because cynical is such an ugly word) leader will use that to her advantage.
I am a renowned curmudgeon when it comes to New Year's celebrations. It's in my nature to dwell on the myriad things that have gone wrong last year, rather than be blindly optimistic about the future. This is both depressing to my loved ones and what makes me a half-decent project manager.
Here's what I do know. The reason most teams get into trouble when it comes to internal communication (especially virtually or over distance) is that all the hard work you put into putting together communication plans, standards and expectations have been allowed to go unexamined.
Over time bad habits have developed, people have not been held accountable, and circumstances have just plain changed. But this time of year allows you the luxury to do something you (probably) haven't done in a long time: stop and think about how you work, and how you should be working together.
So here are five "new year's resolutions" you should at least consider for your remote team:
Somebody actually write down our communication plan If your team has a formal communication plan, it's probably in desperate need of an update. More likely, it was discussed but never formalized. It's actually difficult to hold people accountable if the rules of engagement aren't posted somewhere everyone can see it. What are the expectations around returning messages? When do you bother someone at home? Put it up on the shared file sites, email it to everyone (although don't expect them to file it properly) and make it part of everything your team does.
Update the darned thing One of the most common challenges with communication plans is that people change information (extensions, cell phone numbers, IM addresses) as well as their availability ("Soccer practice for the kids is now Wednesdays, so that's a bad time to reach me at the office number"). Make sure that there's a simple way to update it and people know that they should.
Ask "what's working and what isn't?" This is not as simple a question as it sounds. How is your team really communicating? What falls through the cracks? We assess these questions in our "How to Create and Manage Remote Teams workshops, but you can do it simply enough. Get the team involved in this conversation and be prepared for some surprisingly harsh feedback.
Once you've identified what isn't working, work as a team to solve it. Taking stock of what's working and what isn't, but not doing anything about it isn't team building. It's whining. A great example is that you spend the last 20 minutes before every meeting re-sending documents or information you've already sent but no one can find. In that case you need to actually stop the madness and maybe institute share files for document control then hold people accountable for using the new system
Take a look at what tools you're using, and what you need to do. Do you need to upgrade your project management software? Has your IT team given you a webmeeting license that you've been avoiding? Do you have tools like LYNC or OneNote that are sitting there unused but might actually help your team be more productive? Has anyone come across a tool you should be using but aren't? This is a good time for those conversations.
While I'm probably the last person to tell people about new year's resolutions and the importance of keeping them, I do know that this is the one time of year you can call time out and have these conversations without people wondering what you're really doing. Make the time of year work for you and your team.