So many in-house lawyers work in or manage teams spread across multiple locations. As businesses grow, outsource and employees demand they become more agile, delivering through remote teams is a skill you need to have. There are benefits to working in this way - a diverse skill set, local expertise, access to the best talent and cost savings - but there are also significant challenges. 

In a recent assignment with an in-house team, we worked with the GC and their leadership team, to bring together a geographically dispersed team of lawyers who were struggling with communication and clarity of purpose. Below are four of the things we focused on to help the team deliver.

Focus on common goals

Different time zones, languages and cultures become additional obstacles to sharing common goals in the team. Teams can lose focus or even work towards conflicting goals. Use these steps to ensure your team focus on what they have in common:

  • produce and share a roadmap clearly defining your strategy, purpose and priorities. This should help make sure all involved are clear where they're heading;
  • define how much scope each team member has to progress matters independently and when issues should be escalated;
  • talk regularly with senior team members in different locations to ensure they have all necessary resources, encourage them to review and challenge what has been used historically.

Respect cross-cultural differences

Geographically dispersed teams are likely to have different ways of working. This can result in disconnect across jurisdictions. These tips will help the teams navigate cultural differences:

  • observe and learn about cross-cultural differences. For example, employees and managers in the USA can seem confident, direct in general approach, and focused on achieving results as quickly as possible…Professionals from Japan are just as focused on results, but they observe strict formalities in their personal and team interactions, and place a high value on loyalty and teamwork." (source: Quality Digest);
  • show respect for cultural differences to ensure team members don't close down or feel de-valued. You should consider establishing a zero-tolerance policy for displays of cultural insensitivity.

Strengthen communication

Physical distance can lead to emotional disconnect. You lose the benefits of reading signals from the body language and regular informal communication. While email, telephone and online meetings are widely available across the world, the best way to avoid issues is to:

  • always use methods of communication available to all team members;
  • monitor team dynamics and look for signs for people distancing themselves. They might start dropping out of conference calls or sending abrupt emails;
  • provide regular feedback that is fair and consistent. If something needs to be said, schedule a telephone call, don't leave it until a formal review;
  • schedule regular team bonding activities. These could be as simple as creating a team intranet page or encouraging ten minutes light conversation during video conferences.

Keep your team motivated

Geographically dispersed teams can struggle with different perspectives, unshared information and tensions can grow between distant subgroups. Members can feel isolated and lose motivation. These tips will ensure your team stay motivated:

  • character is as important as skills when you are selecting team members. Choose people who are naturally self-motivated and thrive working independently, as well as having an open and honest personality;
  • if you are working on a big project, use project management techniques to keep it on track and people motivated, break down project activities into deliverables, assign and communicate tasks and timelines and have regular check points;
  • involve employees in important decisions, contact them frequently to discuss ongoing projects, and thank them for good work.

If you would like to read more about the topic I'd recommend HBR article "Global Teams That Work".

It's important to focus on your team, failing to address any challenges often leads to a high turnover of people and poor performance, both of which are costly and leave the company exposed to more risks.

The Client Development Centre has been helping in-house legal functions to build and manage high performance teams for over ten years and has an extensive experience structuring and improving the performance of large international geographically dispersed departments. If you would like to find out more, please get in touch.

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