Reducing tensions in partly-virtual teams

Jul 28 2015 by Wayne Turmel Print This Article

This blog spends a lot of time talking about virtual, or remote, teams as if your world is made up of either people who come into the office all the time and are co-located, or work remotely and you never see them. In fact, many of us have hybrid-teams, some working in the office, some teleworking or otherwise out in the field. These are a unique challenge.

One of the most common challenges for leaders in these teams is ensuring that the remote team members feel included and productive, while reducing the resentment that the office workers sometimes have for their virtual peers.

Here are some of the most common causes of tension within these mixed groups.

Why Remote Workers Feel Like Second Class Citizens. There are any number of reasons, real and imagined, for people to feel this way: Conference calls where everyone in the office is gathered together while you’re alone on a poor audio connection, getting the latest news and gossip long after everyone else, “they” get pizza and birthday cake, and “we” are at the mercy of time zones that mean taking calls at ungodly hours of the day or night.

Leaders need to be aware of these dynamics before they become the source of real problems like broken trust or resentment that can damage productivity or lead to turnover.

The Home Team Feels Hard Done By. This is actually a growing problem and one that’s seldom spoken out loud. The fact is, remote workers are sometimes viewed as the lucky ones. Think about it: “they” don’t have to fight traffic to be in the office at a certain time each day. “They” can wear AC/DC Tshirts and bare feet while “we” have to meet the dress code. “They” don’t have the thousand interruptions every day that make it hard to work. Maybe most importantly, “we” get all the lousy assignments and have to do all the dirty work, while “they” get away scot-free.

As usual, there is a mix of accurate and completely insane perceptions at work here. As a leader of this time, though, it’s up to you to identify potential problems and address them before things get ugly.

So if you work in this sort of setup, here are some questions to ask yourself - and then your team:

  • When you make an announcement or pass on company information, do you tell one group before the other? Try to include everyone, even if it means holding a webmeeting or conference call for everybody at the same time. The perception of always being the last to know can hurt.
  • When delegating, are you choosing the right person for the job, or the first person you can physically lay hands on? It’s true that some tasks can only be done by someone with physical access to the building, or the files, or to resources. It’s also true that sometimes we think of a job to be done and assign it to the first person we happen to see. Are you delegating this task because that’s the right person for the job, or just the easiest way to get it off your desk?
  • Does the team know when or why a task has been delegated? Often this happens with one on one conversations, so there may be a false perception that those who don’t come in to the office every day escape these extra duties. Let the team know when a task has been assigned to someone else. The perception of fairness is actually more important than actually being fair.
  • When holding a conference call by speaker phone, try actively soliciting input from the remote people before taking comments from the room. It’s too easy to have the home team dominate the conversation, and the remote members think of themselves as excluded, even if that’s not the intent.

Hybrid teams are becoming the norm today, and a wise leader is aware of the unique dynamics that can make them work (getting the best from everyone, in real time, no matter where they are) as well as what can derail your efforts.

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About The Author

Wayne Turmel
Wayne Turmel

For almost 30 years, Wayne Turmel has been obsessed with how people communicate - or don't - at work. He has spent the last 20 years focused on remote and virtual work, recognized as one of the top 40 Remote Work Experts in the world. Besides writing for Management Issues, he has authored or co-authored 15 books, including The Long-Distance Leader and The Long-Distance Teammate. He is the lead Remote and Hybrid Work subject matter expert for the The Kevin Eikenberry Group. Originally from Canada, he now makes his home in Las Vegas, US.