With the right strategies, collaborating with remote teams can be highly rewarding, rather than a disaster.
Remote collaboration is becoming an everyday reality in today’s businesses, small and large. Some of your team members might work from home occasionally or every day. You might operate in partnership with other businesses located in different buildings, cities or countries. And you might engage freelancers from all around the world.
Setting up your organisation for effective remote work can open up a world of opportunities. You can network without geographical limits and work with people you otherwise couldn’t. Cost savings can also be significant.
Your remote members are likely to be happier and more engaged than the average office-based employee, appreciating the flexibility and lifestyle that this work arrangement offers. They also have better control over their environment, and thus a better chance to avoid distractions, which of course helps with productivity.
But it’s not all sunshine and rainbows …
Remote collaboration can be a challenge
Remote workers typically work from home, by themselves, which presents its own set of challenges. For example, it can be difficult to set the right priorities, and to stay motivated, focused and disciplined when no-one is around. Home-based workers often feel isolated and disconnected from the team. They often struggle to maintain boundaries and to unplug from work.
Poor communication is not helping. Without maintaining regular quality contact with their mates, hearing what’s happening within the team and being heard, remote members can feel overlooked and left out. They may start to doubt themselves and their performance, worry that they are hopelessly behind, and even overwork in order to compensate. And you can imagine their frustration when they miss out on recognition just because they are out of sight.
So it’s worth doing a reality check. How effectively does your team communicate and collaborate? Does everyone have a fair chance to influence decisions? Can everyone see clearly how their work contributes to the purpose of the business? And does every single member feel valued, appreciated, and connected to the team – whether they work remotely or sit next to you?
Requesting or allowing people to work from outside the office, without adequate preparation and support, is a recipe for failure.
Here is a list of things you can do to alleviate potential issues and to set up your teams for success:
Coordinate work carefully
1. Create communication protocols
For your team to work like a well-oiled machine, everyone needs to understand how their tasks fit into the larger picture. They also need to know what others are doing and when they are available. To make this happen, create communication protocols describing when and how your people should provide updates, discuss certain issues and make decisions. Take into consideration members’ preferred methods of communication to get the best results.
2. Set clear targets and performance indicators
Set clear targets and performance indicators that will help you evaluate your people’s performance fairly. Be mindful of your unconscious biases. We all have the natural tendency to overestimate the skills and contribution of those we frequently see in person compared to those we only work with remotely. You can’t overcome such ingrained biases at will – you need smart management strategies to help you stay objective.
3. Allow people to set boundaries
While regular interaction is important, I suggest you encourage your remote members to set some boundaries. Just like anyone else, sometimes they need to block out all distractions and work in a bubble in order to get things done. So let them silence their phones, switch off notifications, and not answer emails and messages when their work requires deep focus.
4. Support healthy work routines
Your remote team could possibly use some help in maintaining a healthy work routine. Encourage them to take regular breaks during the day, which might not come natural to them without the hustle and interruptions of a busy office. Make it clear to them when they are expected to answer emails and calls, and when they can switch off at the end of the day.
Share information and provide feedback
5. Share all news and updates
Share all news and updates with your remote team, no matter how small. If it’s worth talking about with a colleague over a coffee then it’s also worth sharing with those far away. Keeping all members fully up-to-date on what’s happening in the business will make them feel more involved and valued, and give them a greater sense of progress.
6. Schedule informal online learning sessions
In the workplace, people tend to learn more about their jobs through impromptu chats and overheard conversations than through formal training. While it might sound paradoxical, you might want to schedule time for ‘spontaneous’, informal online learning sessions to ensure that your team members are not missing out on the opportunity to learn from each other.
7. Provide frequent recognition and feedback
Even though they might be highly independent, confident and self-motivated, your remote members need recognition and feedback as much as anyone else, if not more. So share your thoughts about their work generously, and help them see how their efforts translate to tangible results. You don’t want them to overwork, feeling that they constantly need to prove themselves.
Use smart technologies and strategies for online collaboration
8. Ask everyone to switch on their video
During conference calls, every participant should switch on their video. You’ll have a more connected conversation when you can actually see each other. In addition, this will prompt members to pay full attention, rather than multitasking during the meeting.
9. Use good quality equipment
Use good quality video-conferencing equipment. Place screens, cameras and microphones carefully, in a way that every single member – whether physically present or joining remotely – can clearly see and hear each other. For large meetings you’ll probably need to use multiple pieces of equipment, but you’ll find that with the right technology and set-up your team will be able to communicate much more effectively.
10. Give everyone equal opportunity
When some team members are joining a meeting remotely while others are in the same office, consider adopting this interesting strategy commonly used at Trello’s and then at Atlassian’s offices. The idea is that office-based members actually disperse. All participants sit in a separate (ideally soundproof) space, joining the meeting via their own laptops or devices. This gives everyone an equal opportunity to be involved in the conversation and to contribute; no-one is sidelined.
11. Use a digital canvas
Consider investing in a digital canvas – a device you can write or draw on directly, using touch technology, and which also allows you to also add notes and images from your own devices. Remote members are also able to see the content of the canvas via the internet and to seamlessly contribute with their ideas.
12. Set up a 24/7 video link between offices
When two or more teams in different offices collaborate together, it might be worthwhile to set up a 24/7 video connection between these offices. Using large screens, you can create the illusion that the other teams are at an arm’s length. This can invite informal conversations between members who might be working in different countries, and strengthen the connection between the teams.
Build and nurture social bonds
13. Allow time for social interaction
Allow time for social catch-ups with (and among) remote members. Chatting about home life, current affairs, or personal interests and opinions, for example, is not a waste of time; social bonds are important pillars of a great workplace culture. Schedule virtual coffee meetings, and set up social media channels dedicated to non-work related conversations. While such interactions occur naturally in an office, you’ll need to be organised and proactive to bring people closer to each other in a virtual environment.
14. Meet your remote members in person
Catch up with your remote members in person at least once or twice a year, and when possible, bring the whole team together. Face-to-face meetings and events can strengthen relationships, energise your team and give collaboration a boost. I’m sure you know what it feels like when you meet a good friend you haven’t seen for a long time – the friendship suddenly feels stronger and more real. In this regard, work relationships are very similar.
15. Encourage remote members to work together
If some of your team live near each other, encourage them to meet and work together every now and then. They could work side by side at a coworking space, a cafe, or someone’s home office, for instance, enjoying a welcome break from the usual solitude. Even if they work on different projects, using different skills, this could still be a great opportunity to explore shared interests, help each other out, and learn from one another.
Adapt your workplace to a remote-working culture
16. Create inviting, well-equipped team areas
While not everyone might be able to travel to your office frequently, some members may have this option. And if you’d like to see them in person more often – which will likely benefit business performance – your workspace needs to be an attractive destination. Think of the reasons why remote members might want to visit the office. Chances are they are looking for in-person collaboration and personal connection. So ideally, your workspace should incorporate inviting, well-equipped team areas where visiting members can work and connect with their mates.
17. Create a welcoming ‘base’
Remote workers may also want to pop into the office for a top-up of inspiration, and to immerse themselves in a community where they feel they belong. To ensure that visiting members get the emotional support they need, let them know that they always have a place. When feasible, create a welcoming ‘base’ where they can sit and work whenever they come in, so that they don’t need to hunt for a vacant desk, or to settle for a spot that feels more like a ‘naughty corner’.
18. Allocate a space for deep focus
People working from home regularly can quickly get used to the quiet and controlled environment. On the downside, they might become increasingly sensitive to noise and other distractions. Keep this in mind when you invite home-based members to work in your office. I suggest you allocate a space for deep focus, in a relatively quiet area of your workspace, where loud conversations and phone calls are kept to a minimum.
19. Make your workspace feel a bit like home
The workspaces of some progressive companies employing both office-based and remote members are designed to feel a bit like home. Apart from the significant productivity and wellbeing benefits, these workspaces send the empowering message: everyone’s treated fairly and equally. There are no ‘lucky ones’. How can you achieve this? Create a pleasant and comfortable environment which offers ample personal space and a great degree of flexibility and control. Make sure your people have the option to work in privacy, without interruptions, as needed.
Set up your workspace for better communication
20. Enable seamless video conferencing
Create a team space for seamless video conferencing. First, organise the space to support engaging, inclusive conversations. A great collaboration space allows participants to easily stand up and move around, and incorporates vertical surfaces to draw and write on. The next step is to design technology around the natural flow of work, ensuring that members stay on screen even as they move around. No-one should feel constrained by technology. With the right set-up, participants could forget about the physical distance and work together as if they’re in the same room.
21. Provide small sound-proof spaces
You probably find that collaborating with remote members requires a large number of one-on-one phone calls and video calls. You might want to provide small, sound-proof rooms or meeting booths for this purpose. Everyone will benefit – people on the call will find it easier to pay attention to each other and discuss issues in privacy, while the rest of the team will be saved from the distraction.
Provide assistance and training
22. Help people set up their home offices
Provide assistance and training to remote members for setting up their home offices. Home-based workers often experience discomfort and health issues that stem from having a poorly set up home office, using low quality furniture, or working in places they shouldn’t. Bad posture can also directly impact their mood and performance. Give them the same level of support as your office-based members; they will not only be able to perform better but will also feel equal to their peers.
23. Provide everyone with the same standard of technology
If feasible, provide every member of your team with the same quality of technology as well as IT support. This will not only enable efficient communication and teamwork, and increase productivity, but again, will send the message that there are no ‘second-class citizens’ in the team.
24. Educate people about effective work practices
Think of the members of your team who frequently work in coworking places, cafes, or on the road – in airport lounges and hotel rooms. They need to learn, perhaps more than anyone, where and how to work in order to be able to focus and do their best. So give them the necessary training, and point them to the resources that will help them make smart choices.
Know who is up for the challenge and let them fly
25. Pay attention to how your people feel
If you’re concerned about remote workers slacking off without the structure and accountability of the office environment, I might have surprising news for you. Studies suggest that remote workers who love their jobs despite the inherent hurdles tend to have exceptional work ethic. They are typically hard-working, self-motivated individuals who strive to be their best and are willing to go the extra mile. So instead of questioning their performance, you might want to check how your remote members feel. If they consistently struggle, remote work might not be the right choice for them. But if they handle the challenges with great spirit, they probably deserve your trust.
To sum up
To set up your teams – including both remote and office-based members – for success, you need to be highly organised and plan carefully. You probably need to provide training, build new skills, set up new systems and processes, and adapt your workplace culture to new ways of working.
Working remotely isn’t easy, and it’s certainly not for everyone. But the right people, with the right remote working strategies, can help your business reach new heights. Treat your remote members as integral parts of your team, collaborate with intelligence and discipline, and you won’t look back.