You may not like everyone who works in your physical office. But at least you know people well enough to have reasons to dislike them. After all, you spend eight or more hours together every day.

Not so in the virtual world, where the lack of serendipitous encounters and chance conversations make it all the more difficult to forge connections — and increase the ease of developing biased perceptions.

Sometimes even the warmest and most considerate people sound cold and abrasive on the phone. A shy person can be misconstrued as cool and aloof. And, curiously, someone suffering from massive insecurities can seem narcissistic and egotistical because he insists on hiding behind a wall of faux achievements.

So in the age of remote workforces, when employees are increasingly connected by technology rather than shared desk space, how do we make lofty concepts like collaboration and cooperation a daily reality?

Can we force people on opposite coasts to actually like each other? Or, failing that, can we just get everyone to respect each other enough to embrace a common culture?

The Question

How can you transform a geographically dispersed workforce to a team?

The Answers

Paul Miller, CEO and Founder, Digital Workplace Group


A CMSWire contributing author, Miller runs the London-based Digital Workplace Group (DWG), a company offering expertise and advice on intranet and digital workplace implementation, along with research into the emerging digital world of work.  He is author of two books, “The Digital Workplace: How Technology is Liberating Work” and “The Digital Renaissance of Work: Delivering Digital Workplaces Fit For The Future”, co-authored with Elizabeth Marsh, DWG's Director of Research. Tweet to Paul Miller.

Everyone used to say you have to meet in person to build trust. Not any more. To knit a virtual team together requires decent technology, clear communication and persistence. 

Here are my seven rules for creating excellent teamwork among people who never (or seldom meet):

1. Use easy technology that can be accessed without barriers from anywhere: Yammer, Chatter and the like are solid enough. Strong instant messages can be delivered through all vendors but at DWG we use Skype mostly. Create a group within your selected tools that can be used by the team. But email still has a place as its reliable and easy to search.

2. Require 'digital presence' as physical presence is impossible: When team members are working they should have their digital channels open and accessible to other team members. Firing off a quick IM and getting a rapid reply builds confidence.  

3. Communicate frequently, in formal and informal ways: Post to networks like Yammer several times a day and make sure they are regular weekly or bi-weekly meetings when the whole team can meet -- as they would in a shared physical workplace. 

4. Get very good quality audio (and decent enough video): We must be able to hear each other well. For conference calls make sure people are in quiet places and can mute easily. Voice over IP (VoIP) is best. If we can't hear, we can't communicate. I blow hot and cold on video because the quality is not great, though Google Hangouts are quite good. 

5. Have friendly chatter before getting down to business: Asking about the kids, holidays, aging parents, what music you just heard … all help create glue between team members. Sharing photos socially via Chatter (or similar services) helps, too.

6. When conflicts arise, handle them at once and outside of group calls: Problems arise and leaders of teams need to handle them as they would in a physical office or factory. For me, as CEO of an 80-person consulting company, this is biggest downside of having no offices at all. When things are tricky, having a coffee is hard to arrange or even impossible. But open one-to-one phone calls allow progress to be made. 

7. Be patient and persistent, as building teams takes both: Teams that are dispersed, like teams in one location, require nurturing and leadership. This process requires repeated, consistent action. This persistence builds predictability and trust.

Cheryl Kerrigan, Vice President of Employee Success, Achievers


Kerrigan is responsible for the overall people strategy at Achievers. a cloud-based Employee Success Platform designed to engage, align and recognize employees. She was formerly an HR leader at Eloqua, where she was responsible for building out the HR function and strategy and attracting and developing the talent to grow the business from $10 million to more than $100 million in revenue. Tweet to Cheryl Kerrigan.

Fostering teamwork and a sense of shared responsibility can be difficult for any company. But for those organizations with employees working from home, telecommuting or based in another office across the globe, it can be a major challenge. Understanding how to keep your remote employees engaged, aligned and recognized as one team is paramount to business success. Remote employees aren’t just an extension of your team. They are your team. Too easily, dispersed teams can become disconnected from their mission, leading to less than desirable results.

It doesn’t have to be that way, however. Here are a few ways to bridge the geographical divide and cultivate collaboration as well as camaraderie among your team.

1. Build a Strong Culture – With the Right People: The best way to engage and unify a dispersed and contingent global workforce is to create a strong, positive company culture that is unique, yet equally shared among your many offices or locations. It might seem simple, but this starts with hiring the right people that align to your companies mission and strategy. Take the time during the hiring process to find candidates that share common values no matter where they are located. Once they are on-boarded, create ways for employees to bond over shared interests -- helping to create deeper levels of trust, camaraderie and friendship among staff that may never meet face to face.

2. Implement a Mobile-First Strategy: According to Gartner, there are more connected mobile devices on earth than there are people. The workforce is more mobile than ever before with 1 in 5 people now owning a smart phone. With ubiquitous access to online meeting services and enterprise collaboration software, employees working remotely can communicate as if they’re sitting in the same room. They forge professional, and more importantly, personal connections as they collaborate on projects, working together towards the end goal — all from the comfort of their own homes (or cities).

3. Create a Global Recognition Strategy: The power of a ‘thank you’ transcends borders. Create an engaging recognition strategy that is not just for the people in HQ, but in every office or home office using mobile technology. Done correctly, recognition amplifies positive behaviors that drive results. It helps align employees to core values and business objectives. With social-based employee engagement software, managers and team members can not only thank each other publicly for exceptional performance but also spread that recognition to every employee — regardless of their physical location.

Michael DeFranco, CEO and Founder, Lua


DeFranco runs Lua, a company specializing in secure mobile messaging. To bootstrap Lua, DeFranco built databases to help launch Bloomberg Government and subsequently support its ongoing research efforts. He was formerly head research analyst for legislative intelligence at iMapData, an enterprise software company that provides security solutions to the US government and Fortune 500 corporations. Tweet to Michael DeFranco.

How do you build a team from a geographically dispersed workforce? Above all, hire individuals that are trustworthy self-starters and proactive communicators. Define a certain internal culture you’d like to develop, and keep this in mind when bringing on new members.

If you want a relaxed and casual “office” vibe, you’ll hire different people than if you want a highly polished and business-like atmosphere, though employees of both types may be equally qualified and productive. Remember, personalities still matter, and even if all or most of their communication will be taking place online or over the phone.

People still have to work together and speak to each other multiple times a day.

Make sure that you’re involved in the group as well. If possible, take a personal interest in each of your employees. If you have too many, have your regional managers make that task their priority. Ensure that a company leader contacts each team member at least three times a week, ideally every day, so everyone still feels connected to the company, even if they work from home.

Further, by encouraging brainstorming as part of these frequent calls, even for a few minutes a session, you’ll allow everyone to have an impact on the company. That will keep morale and productivity high.

Make sure everyone has the proper technology to communicate seamlessly across regions — secure internet, phones and your enterprise chat platform of choice. The more employees chat, the closer they will feel as a team and the more productive the team will be.

Lastly, if you do have remote managers, empower them to hire through their personal network. Before you know it, you’ll have grown a new division of the business full of vetted employees and leaders who are accountable.

David Mandell, CEO and Co-Founder, PivotDesk 


Mandell runs PivotDesk, a Boulder, Colo.-based company that helps startups and small businesses find affordable, short-term office space. The company got its start in 2012 through Techstars Boulder, a business accelerator that provides seed funding to start-ups from more than 75 venture capital firms and angel investors. A TechStars mentor, Mandell has entrepreneurial experience that runs the spectrum from small, start-up organizations to large multi-national corporations. He's also the managing partner at VentureVoodoo partners, a consulting firm specializing in brand management for startup organizations. Tweet to David Mandell.

The key is to stop looking at the idea of succeeding with a remote team as some type of wizardry.

You’ve heard the basic advice before: hire self-motivators, find the right technology and invest in company culture.  These are key. Don’t get me wrong. But I’d argue they aren’t unique to a remote team. They are vital pieces for any team and the same goes for most advice on geographically distributed teams.

My advice? Commit. 

As a leader, the most important piece of building a functional remote team is that you adjust your own behavior. Start by committing to the fact that you’re building a less than conventional environment and you’ll start to see each challenge through that lens. As a result, a few things will shift including: 

The way you communicate: Because your team won’t have the option to feed off your in-office energy, you have to make sure that comes through in your communication. If you’re feeling invigorated or even silly, let them see/hear it. When you’re under pressure and the team’s contribution impacts your progress, they should feel pressure too. (Note: don’t confuse pressure with panic. Panic drives distraction, pressure drives performance).    

If you do this well, it will help establish culture and progress.

Your expectations: You’re working with a group of people who enjoy managing themselves. That’s why they’ve signed up for this type of team. This changes things from running a conventional team in that this group will be more inclined to set their own hours and produce work on their own time. So while you should always expect great work when you need it, micromanaging their process of execution is not the way to go. It takes trust but set priorities and then do your best to step back. The right people will produce what you need. 

Title image by Asa Aarons Smith / all rights reserved.