Critical Principles And Proven Tactics For Working Together When We’re Not in the Same Place
Your company has decided to work remotely. Your employees have designated specific workspaces in their homes, picked your video conferencing application (probably Zoom.us), and established a daily work routine. The work environment is certainly different, but has your team planned how it will collaborate effectively?
How do you as a leader help your remote team actually perform together when they are no longer in the same location? How do your people collaborate effectively when working remotely? This goes way beyond video conferencing.
At Unitonomy, we’ve created a set of principles we use when collaborating with our teammates around the world. These practices are ones we embrace to make working together–even while apart–an effective, impactful experience. You can adopt these practices on your own or leverage GetCommit, the system we’re building to augment communication inside Slack or Microsoft Teams to cultivate collaboration.
Here are some of the principles (along with ways to put them into action) to improve remote work collaboration with your team:
Work culture is built on top of every collaboration, and collaboration is built on top of communication.
Communication comes in many forms, from speech to writing to body language. For remote teams, some of those forms are limited (like face-to-face) or entirely unavailable. This means the remaining forms, primarily written communication and bursts of video calls, must be more precise. As a remote team, you must accept that communication is hampered. Which means collaboration is hampered. Which means the work culture is hampered. Those obstructions have consequences.
The overlooked email, the updated deadline that never made it to one remote team member, the misinterpreted tone, the vague IM, the critical information that didn’t get shared. All of these lead to frustration, confusion, and even anger when working remotely, let alone the direct impacts to work outputs.
Solution: Building a great remote work culture starts with the acceptance that you will all have to place more effort into communication. This does not mean increasing the sheer volume of communication per se, but making sure your remote team employees are intentional about communicating with precision and transparency within the group.
Awareness is one of the most important outcomes of good communication
One of the big challenges when you aren’t working side by side is you don’t have immediate access to those casual interactions that keep you moving forward together. Watercooler conversations and hallway heads-ups are replaced with chatter in Slack or Microsoft Teams, but that presents other challenges! What may have once happened in passing, now must be more intentional and curated. But avoid team meetings and learn to communicate asynchronously!
Solution: You’re now relying heavily on instant messengers, but they create a lot of noise and distraction. As team leader, designate someone to apply organizing principles to the communication platform your team is using. Be sure to teach general etiquette to use these tools effectively. For example, you may want to create channels within Slack arranged by project and subgroups within the project, with additional channels like #general for team-wide announcements and #random for non-work-related topics. Set aside time for your whole team to have an introduction (or refresher) on how best to use the tools.
Solution: Have everyone on your team share what they are focused on each week. You all have lots of items on your proverbial plates; what is the one thing each person is really trying to get across the finish line this week? Create a channel in Slack or Teams (or a group email) where everyone in the team individually writes their response to that question at the beginning of each workweek so there is understanding across your team, and members can support the efforts of each individual toward accomplishing their focus task.
Solution: Now that you’re not all in the same physical location, how do you make sure everyone knows what is going on? Consider curating an engaging newsfeed of the most important information everyone in the company needs to know. This can be automated by pulling information from other applications or manually edited (or a combination of both). Make it brief, bulleted, and easily digestible. Publish daily, weekly, or monthly–find the cadence that works best for your team, taking into consideration both the amount of info to communicate and how often your team can realistically commit to digesting it.
Trust is the foundation for every relationship
While it may be tempting to monitor your team much more closely when everyone is working remotely, that actually often backfires. People need autonomy to remain engaged in their role. Pair autonomy with the flexibility that remote work provides and your organization presents a work culture that your talent will want to stick with.
Solution: As team leader, trust your team and focus on using methods that empower, not micromanage. Frame your written communication to provide support, not oversight.
Solution: Don’t overmanage when the effort doesn’t require it. Avoid needless, tedious tools like ticketing systems or weekly OKRs if the work at stake doesn’t benefit from the overhead.
Solution: As remote work veteran Brad Luttrell of GoWild suggests, everyone has different personal schedules on your remote team. Not to mention different time zones. Choose an “all access” time where people can collaborate with ease and gather for remote meetings and video chat.
People need to feel they belong to the organization and their effort aligns with the effort of others.
When working on a team, individuals want to feel like they are driving toward a bigger goal, and that their coworkers are too. When working remotely, it can be more challenging to understand how one fits into the big picture, as well as developing and maintaining each employee’s sense of belonging within the team. Project management tools won’t help your remote team build a sense of belonging.
Solution: Regularly take a moment to reassert your organization’s mission and values through storytelling. This is the type of team building that provides a foundation for team collaboration.
Solution: Ask individuals to share one thing they performed this week and how it mapped to the company’s goals. This can work like a show-and-tell: it’s an activity to reinforce the team effort that’s at play and why it matters. Make sure you participate; your involvement as the team leader makes a difference in modeling participation for others.
People need to feel connected to each other
Working remotely may sound fantastic initially to your team, but it can be isolating and lonely, even for your most introverted employee. It’s important to find ways to connect and bond even while remote. Those little moments of interaction at the office, like while waiting for the microwave in the kitchenette, actually matter more than we think and reinforce our sense of true belonging. Again, this is where intentionality comes into play in order to recreate something that happens naturally when our remote team members are in closer proximity.
Solution: Slack and Teams provide a great way for remote people to feel connected to their colleagues. Yet don’t assume everyone truly feels connected, especially when communication is not running in real-time with people scattered across multiple time zones. Reach out privately to individuals to ask how they feel about their work and working remotely. These conversations should have an approachable, supportive tone; if they aren’t feeling connected, look for ways to improve the situation.
Solution: Create a dedicated time or digital place each week for your team members to check in about non-work-related things. This can be verbal, in a team call, or written, in a dedicated space in your communication channels so members can contribute as they like (and more dominant personalities don’t overshadow more reticent ones). You may want to use a prompt that changes each week, or have open-ended questions that remain consistent. Make sure the prompts or questions are broad enough that each team member is able to contribute. You don’t want to force members to reply, but you do want to create an atmosphere that fosters a warm invitation to do so. And remember, as the team lead, you set the tone for this practice by contributing and answering the questions yourself!
Solution: Start a hot potato channel in your digital communication platform with your remote team to pass small affirmations. Ping the first person and ask them to compliment someone else who has recently made their job better. After receiving the compliment, that person is now tagged to perform the same for someone else on the remote team, and so on, until the whole remote team has been praised. The work you are doing may require long hours and lots of focus and all kinds of stress. While it may sound minor, having that moment to hear and share a little supportive comment signals you are all in this together and adds up in the long run.
Accountability should be shared and mutual
Your team is now in different locations and maybe different time zones, but you are still responsible for one another and the body of work you are collectively pushing forward. When you’re a desk or office away from each other, you can hear someone having frustration at their keyboard, or witness non-verbal cues as they head to the copier. This contract got jammed up. That deliverable has a delay. This client is now asking for something else entirely. This project now needs to come in early, but we’re still waiting on a critical piece before it can move forward.
Sometimes, there’s nothing the rest of the team can do about the situation. Other times, members react by shifting things off the coworker’s plate, lending extra effort to resolve the challenge, or coming together to brainstorm or even triage the situation. In distributed team scenarios, those situations may not always get communicated wordlessly to each remote team member, like they do at the office environment. Remote workers have to breed shared accountability.
Solution: Create another brief check-in toward the end of each business day for virtual team members to give the collective group a “heads up” about any fires, frustrations, or even just minor cautions. If that critical piece has still not arrived to move the expedited project forward, now the entire team knows and can put their collective energy behind supporting the affected employee(s) and brainstorming solutions.
People need to develop and express their professional identity
Working remotely distills our interactions with each other down to typed words and (often choppy) video conferences. While those can be efficient for getting certain types of work completed, they can also lead to challenges around understanding individual team members clearly, or feeling understood ourselves. Increasing a sense of understanding is important to improve remote work collaboration between remote employees. The complicated human beings you work with may be feeling a range of emotions related or unrelated to work. Working remotely may highlight some of these tensions that would otherwise go unnoticed.
Solution: Invite your team members to create a “user manual” for how to work best with them as individuals. Make these manuals available to the group. What are their strengths? Their weaknesses? In what scenario do they do their best work? How would the team know if they are stressed (any “tells”)? How do they prefer feedback? This practice allows your team to better understand how to best work with each other, as well as giving each member a sense of being seen and heard, even when remote. And, of course, as the team leader, set the example by creating a user manual for yourself and your style! (you can use Google to find many examples)
People need to feel safe in their work and collaborations
Your team may be feeling uncertain on many fronts: personal, national, and within and around your business. As a leader, you yourself may be struggling with change, be it this shift to working remotely or other non-work related reasons in your life. You know what? That’s normal. That makes sense.
Solution: In the midst of stress, individuals seek a sense of safety, both physical and emotional. Your team is already physically located in their homes (hopefully places that are very safe for each of them). Be committed to finding other ways to signal emotional safety to your team through openness, transparency, and an obsession for good communication. A sense of safety is the foundation for trust. And a team that trusts each other is a team that is resilient.
Working remotely can have its challenges. It can be an excellent experience for your team, however, with the right attention to reinforcing human connections across digital channels. The office environment is gone. Team communication is everything.
You can read more about how our founder, Charley Miller, thinks about collaboration in the age of remote working in this interview with Business First.
With Covid-19 forcing so many to collaborate remotely, we hope our advice helps your organization. Here’s a guide to collaboration tools that we find beneficial for remote workers. And we also suggest reading Work Rituals for Remote Workers.
As the coronavirus pandemic forces more remote collaboration, your workforce is likely a remote workforce for the foreseeable future. Your communication tools and virtual meetings will either help or hinder your organization’s performance. But tools aren’t everything — so please help us spread our advice on remote working collaboration.
If you have suggestions of areas we should add to this philosophy, tweet us @unitonomy or connect with us on LinkedIn.
You can implement each of the above tips on your own to improve remote work collaboration, but for a turnkey solution that does this for you, check out Unitonomy’s GetCommit. GetCommit is designed specifically to help teams cultivate a strong and resilient culture, whether side by side or working remotely.