When an organization truly opens the door to remote work, they start to think global whether they realize it or not. By taking teamwork out of the physical office, collaboration becomes a system of beliefs and practices that can accomplish things anywhere.
When looking at remote work success stories, startups are often considered trendsetters. But even among these “emerging private sector business models,” 100% remote teams are still relatively rare. And even rarer still are truly global teams.
Indeed, the idea of running a team spread across a wide range of countries and timezones might seem extreme. Which, we think, makes our experience as a 70-year-old development and humanitarian organization worth sharing.
Developing Teams Across Borders
UNICEF works in 190 countries and territories and has spent 70 years working to protect the rights of every child and improve the lives of children and their families. Defending children's rights throughout their lives requires a global presence, whether through a structured network of offices, or surging mobile teams to the front lines of the biggest global crises with large-scale support. To stay relevant and fit for purpose in a fast-paced world with constantly-changing needs also means making space to test and evolve organizational models.
This is an area that UNICEF’s Global Innovation Centre (GIC) team is able to trial and share insights on: To apply a radically different model to collaboration and how we create global change. Part of that model is pushing remote work to the extreme. We’re 17 people living in 11 locations, with 71% who telework, 53% who are nomadic, and 41% who work part-time hours.
Before officially launching the GIC in 2015, you’d most likely find us working as a small team of seven in Kampala, Uganda. Once our purpose became clear—to identify, evaluate and implement innovative ideas and technologies that can scale at a national or multinational level—we became fully distributed. So distributed in fact, that our workdays have become almost entirely asynchronous.
Even though teamwork can be tough, the impact is invaluable. We were recently able to deliver life-saving information to over 22,000 people during Hurricane Irma, all in under 30 hours. And that’s just the beginning: Read all about our journey to asynchronous collaboration here.
We think our team is a successful example of “extreme remote,” primarily because we evolved by trial and error along the way.
How do we make it work? Here are the pros, cons, and key lessons learned that we think will resonate with any team, from startup to traditional institution, that is looking to collaborate on a global scale.
The Pros Of Building A Global Team
Trust and competence are fundamental to giving the level of autonomy to a team that is required when you work from different points across the globe. However, with clear goals and a common understanding of remote work best practices, you can reap the rewards of teamwork without borders.
- Hire the best people, regardless of where they live. Tapping into a global talent pool without relocating people, provides access to a wealth of expertise and diversity that is necessary for the work. When it comes to solving difficult problems, planning projects with external organizations, or even just plain brainstorming, having the best available people on the job with their wide array of experience and expertise means your end result will be that much stronger.
- Work flexible hours that fit best with organizational demands and life. Flexible working allows team members to fluidly accommodate demands that for some, mean flexing their schedules to dedicate half their weeknights for calls that can range from 8pm to midnight. The asynchronous collaborative structure also means team members can thrive by working at the times they are most productive—getting the best from early birds and night owls alike to meet clear objectives.
- Have round-the-clock, follow-the-sun coverage for important initiatives. Especially in the case of emergency deployments, our team can be even more effective by leveraging our ability to hand off work in a 24-hour time cycle. Once you have the collaborative structure in place, this can mean more work done in less time!
- Be agile, constantly testing tools and methods of collaboration and work. An “extreme” team is already at the edge of innovative work methods, and that spirit can thrive in all aspects of the organization. We are able to model agility and help test out ideas with other offices, sharing our remote work experiences and lessons learned. This can inform how the entire organization looks at flexible working, and where else it might be applied.
Extreme Remote Teamwork Challenges
We’d be lying if we said that extreme remote work doesn’t come with its own particular set of challenges. Here are the biggest issues to consider when laying the groundwork for positive remote teamwork:
- It can be difficult to form close bonds and friendships without face-to-face interaction. Some members of our team had been working together for over three years without ever having physically met! Empathy when communicating is essential to avoid misunderstandings that can happen when not speaking in person. Don’t forget to also bake in frequent moments of informal bonding, like channels that encourage the sharing of non-work related “what’s going on”—they bring the person and personality into focus. Video also allows higher touch, “real people” interactions, with a wealth of non-verbal cues that emoticons and stickers can’t convey.
Eleven of our GIC members met up in Amman, Jordan last year. Team offsites can be great for building relationships and esprit de corps.
- You will have to work harder at being visible when you’re disconnected from headquarters. New York remains the biological clock for UNICEF, so coordinating meetings and check-ins are a challenge across such a big time zone spread. Low visibility can be an issue, requiring stronger and intentional communication with the right people to keep your team connected to the hub of the organization.
- It can be a struggle to fully trust your tools, and have confidence that asynchronous collaboration will deliver results properly, and on time. Every team will have its own unique working style, and a remote team can never rest in assuming that a process that works today will work equally well tomorrow. Always question whether a certain tool, process, or workflow is working to its full potential, and don’t be afraid to make changes whenever the team deems it necessary.
- Technology can let you down when it comes to keeping communication clean and clear. From hopping across multiple teleconference solutions when they fail, to being present across multiple messaging channels, to asynchronicity that goes against personal communication preferences—it can be tough to stay on the same page. Reliable tools (and extensive testing of those tools) will go a long way, as will 100% buy-in from your team, and clarity for knowing which tools to use for what purpose, and when.
- You need to be adaptable to demanding and differing management challenges. Meeting the needs of a globally-distributed team is no small feat. Everyone is experiencing a different daily environment and are experiencing challenges that may be less easy to identify from afar. Addressing feelings of isolation need to be continually in mind. Being available and empathetic to creatively solving issues as a manager is very important to keeping a remote team in a positive place.
At the end of the day, the proof is in the results.
In 2016 alone, we served 89 countries as a team of 17 people, all working remotely. We’ve helped change laws and lives in 39 countries by connecting more than 4 million young people to their decision makers, supported governments to gain real-time insights and take actions that have results like reaching more children with life-saving immunizations than ever before, and provided free online information to over 10.7 million users worldwide, helping to bridge the digital divide.
All accomplished with a little innovation, some help from technology, and a passion for every child!