How to collaborate effectively if your team is remote: techniques and best practices
By: Leanne Armstrong
Companies are quickly learning that remote work has an enormous upside. Not only are remote teams potentially happier, healthier, and more productive than in-office workers, businesses with distributed teams can often benefit from:
- Cost savings
- Larger talent pools
- More empowered employees
- Improved performance metrics
The key to unlocking advantages like these can be summed up with one simple question: How to collaborate effectively if your team is remote?
It’s true that remote teams have their challenges. In fact, according to Buffer’s State of Remote Work Report 2020, 20% of workers cite collaboration and communication as their biggest struggle with working remotely.
The good news, however, is that teams have been collaborating effectively across time zones and cultures for many years now.
To get and keep your team running like a well-oiled machine, let’s take a look at some of the remote collaboration best practices and techniques that continue to benefit many agile companies.
3 Top remote collaboration best practices
To overcome the physical barriers that characterize distance work, you’ll need to strive for consistent remote collaboration best practices that bridge the gap between team locations, expectations, and work styles.
Here are 3 of the most recommended.
1. Use technology to streamline connections
Regardless of where individual team members work, they must be able to quickly connect with the information they need, as well as with customers, managers, and each other.
An efficient, fully functional technology stack is essential for allowing your remote team to:
- Attend conference calls
- Engage in virtual idea-mapping or think tank sessions
- Share resources and collaborate on projects with other locations or departments
According to Dell Technologies, 89% of organizations now acknowledge the need for an agile and scalable IT infrastructure. By leveraging technology to encourage training, collaboration, productivity, and mobility, you can inspire your team to excel from anywhere.
2. Emphasize work output rather than input
Managing and measuring work performance gets more challenging the further away team members are. According to McKinsey, however, it’s better to define the outcomes you expect from your remote team than specific work activities or the time spent on them.
- Providing clear objectives
- Enabling autonomy and accountability among individual team members
- Arming your team with the resources, expertise, and tools they need to meet goals and milestones
Netflix is a great example of a company that continues to adapt and thrive while measuring productivity in terms of outcomes rather than inputs.
3. Avoid the false busy-ness trap
With the flurry of emails, online chats, virtual meetings, and messaging notifications that punctuate remote work relationships, it can be easy for employees to mistake busy-ness for productivity.
To ramp up meaningful workflow:
- Lay down key team priorities
- Break those priorities into individual tasks and deadlines
- Regularly share that breakdown with your team
When everyone’s on the same page, it’s easier for coworkers to ask for help, anticipate each other’s needs, and avoid unnecessary interruptions.
According to Buffer, 58% of workers consider flexibility – whether in location or schedule – to be the biggest benefit of working remotely. Leaving flexibility out of your remote work practices isn’t just counterproductive, it can prevent team members from giving their all.
Once you’ve agreed to core hours for their availability, round out your best practices by making a conscious decision to lead your team with empathy and to focus on their results. Shared, inclusive work values and processes can go a long way toward encouraging effective collaboration.
5 Proven remote collaboration techniques
There’s no getting around it: making the switch to remote work is probably going to mean making some changes to your usual routine. To find out what works best for your team, you may need to explore new or different ways of working together.
With that in mind, here are 5 remote collaboration techniques you can take for a test drive.
1. Taking advantage of visualization
It can be tough to share information, coordinate activities, and collaborate over projects when your colleagues aren’t just down the hall.
Taking advantage of visual collaboration with the help of a tool like MindManager doesn’t just give your team ongoing visibility into the status of their work, it also:
- Facilitates more meaningful communications around key tasks and projects
- Removes ambiguity, especially for team members who work different hours
- Keeps everyone in the loop, encouraging more active participation in idea generation and problem-solving
Try using proven visualization techniques like mind mapping to achieve an easy-to-see work structure, put shared objectives front and center, and keep everyone accountable and present.
2. Taking a page out of the Agile playbook
Staying agile is especially important when physical connection disappears. To succeed, however, collaborative efforts need to be a little more formal than office-based practices.
Following basic Agile techniques by designating someone to coordinate various work streams – and organizing sets of tasks into short work sprints – can help you:
- Keep track of larger goals
- Ensure agile workflows that promote team alignment and transparency
- Look ahead to optimize resources
Try setting monthly milestones, then breaking those tasks into weekly or bi-weekly sprints. By clearly defining each team member’s deliverables, they’ll find it easier to set up and manage their daily priorities.
3. Meeting with purpose
Efficient, collaborative meet-ups are essential if your team is remote – so make sure you have a plan for every meeting you call.
To prevent unnecessary communication cutting into your team’s valuable time:
- Create and stick to a meeting agenda
- Share your agenda – complete with timeframe, goals, and items to be covered – with your team in advance
- Consider implementing regular daily standups, weekly team or project meetings, and monthly roundups to keep your team on track with objectives, progress, and outcomes
Try to avoid calling meetings just to “touch base”. Instead, use distinct, dedicated communication channels like chat or email to conduct regular check-ins with team members.
4. Onboarding with intention
Expectations for remote teams need to be set early on. A consistent, intentional onboarding process will ensure company goals, work processes, and key performance indicators (KPIs) are fully understood by new hires.
Digital business experts like Neil Patel, co-founder of Crazy Egg, suggest that conducting virtual interviews with the same technology candidates will be required to use on the job can provide insight into how they’ll approach the remote work environment.
Once hired, your team should gather virtually to welcome new coworkers. Giving everyone the chance to put faces to names, and establish a personal connection, will streamline collaboration going forward.
5. Staying social if your team is remote
Working together is – or should be – a social activity. To offset the feelings of disconnection and isolation that can squelch collaboration, you’ll need to find ways to recapture the synergy that happens more naturally when people are physically next to each other.
Try these techniques to help your team stay connected:
- Take a few minutes to do an emotional pulse check at the start of each daily standup
- Create an open workplace concept (or “Zoom room”) by encouraging team members to keep their muted, multi-screen video connections open in the background throughout the work day
- Schedule weekly virtual lunches or social hours to talk about things outside office life
7 Bonus remote collaboration tips
As you navigate the new normal, consider these valuable, remote collaboration tips from business leaders who’ve been there before you.
- Make sure you draft a virtual work conduct policy to define acceptable behavior (it may not be okay, for example, for remote team members to prepare dinner or fold laundry during a conference call)
- Clarify individual responsibilities upfront, conduct regular check-ins to provide guidance, then do your best to trust your team to get the job done
- Communication guidelines should be established (by delineating, for example, when individuals must make themselves available by email, phone, or in-office messaging), and really important messages may need to be repeated through multiple communication channels
- For consistency, make sure everyone on your team is using the same collaboration tools and technology to communicate, share documents, create presentations, and manage and carry out projects
- To avoid the fine line between connection and distraction, avoid extraneous meetings, discourage trail mail, cc’d communications and back-and-forth messaging as much as possible, and let teammates immediately get back to their work when collaboration hours are over
- Make a point of getting to know your colleagues by being intentional about work relationships and talking about more than just the latest project objectives
- Celebrate small wins! One way to do this is by highlighting individual and team achievements in a weekly email. Remember that making merry together bonds work teams, fosters trust, and sheds a strong, positive light on collaboration
Like many business challenges, learning how to collaborate successfully if your team is remote is an ongoing process. You may need to experiment with different policies, practices, and collaboration tools for keeping team members on the same page whether they’re working together or on their own.
- Remote collaboration: a primer for distributed teams
- 7 remote collaboration tools for dispersed teams