Does your team have a "Nit-pickin' Nancy?" If you asked, would everyone know who that is? I admit, that's an odd question, but the answer can be critical to your remote team's success. Let me explain.
When I'm stuck at work for an answer, there are people I call on. If I need a serious big-picture answer, I go to my buddy Pat. If I need a very specific grammar problem, I got to Nit-pickin' Nancy. I have known both of them for years and appreciate their strengths in various areas. I know who these people are and I know where to find them when I need them.
In today's world, teams get quickly thrown together and members are often shuffled around. Turnover can be high as contractors come and go. So the need has never been greater for people to know who they work with, who has what information, and how you can get help when you need it. Yet, paradoxically, the fact that we are tethered together electronically often seems like an insurmountable barrier.
The reason for this lack of communication isn't technology (in fact if you think about it, the ability to span time, space and dimension should make it easier to get what you need from wherever you are). The real barrier is much more powerful and surprising: old-fashioned human connections. Do you know who has specific expertise, and maybe more important, are you comfortable reaching out to your team's Nancy (or Rajesh, or Ronald or whatever)?
Too often, team members don't know the relative strengths and weaknesses of the people they work with. We don't overhear their conversations over cubicle walls, or get a chance to approach them at the coffee pot. It can become a very real problem.
Since it's better to light a candle than curse the darkness, here are some things managers can do to help facilitate that learning and create the short-hand that can radically change teams for the better.
First, create a virtual meeting space. Whether it's an internal Facebook or LinkedIn page, or something like Sqwiggle, HipChat, Yammer or Basecamp. Then do everything you can to ensure people use the tools. When someone says, "I read the most interesting thing…" your response should be "great, did you post it on Sqwiggle (or whatever)?"
Take the time in meetings to help people get to know each other. Especially when new members join the team, it's critical that the existing team know the newbie's strengths as well as their needs. Conversely, when bringing new people onboard, you'll ramp them up faster if people can get the information they need when they need it.
Get out of the way. It's easy for managers to start out as conduits for information and quickly become bottlenecks. Resist the urge to just answer every question that comes along. Delegate in order to connect people. Offer existing team members the opportunity to mentor, train and coach their new peers.
Intentionally ask provocative questions. In meetings you can ask questions like, "what is the biggest strength you bring to this project?" or "if people are stuck, what do you think is your particular area of expertise?". The answers to those questions will be invaluable to your team. Sadly, they might also be surprising. That should tell you something right there.
Every team has a Nit-Pickin' Nancy or a Practical Pat. As a leader, knowing them is critical. Helping everyone else identify and work effectively with them is the sign of great remote leadership.