In recent months, professionals from around the world were forced to suddenly change the way they work and interact with their teammates. Remote work and collaboration has become the new normal. While productivity has stayed surprisingly high for many teams, others are struggling to remain as efficient as they once were. Inertia sustained projects that were in-progress as the pandemic hit, but new initiatives are proving harder to get off the ground. Onboarding new members or creating entirely new teams is more difficult still when folks are remote or distributed.
Effective remote work and collaboration doesn’t happen by accident. Whether your situation was intentional or an unplanned reaction to the coronavirus; independent of it being a temporary or permanent arrangement; this article shares a few important strategies, techniques, and habits to help you make the most of the limited interactions you do have with your geographically dispersed or remote colleagues.
1. Communication Bandwidth
The single biggest obstacle most distributed teams need to overcome is the degraded communication bandwidth they have when compared to co-located groups. This isn’t referring to Internet bandwidth (though that is certainly essential when working remotely), rather it is the actual amount of information that is exchanged between teammates during the workday. World recognized leaders in innovation such as Google design their campus environments and spend significant amounts of money specifically to increase the number of ‘random’ interactions that employees have. They know "that physical proximity is critical to fostering trusting and cooperative relationships (1)". In the early weeks of the global pandemic, many companies made headlines by announcing that remote work might be permanent. However, as the situation drags on and the novelty wears off, some employers and employees are realizing some of the inefficiencies and having second thoughts.
When physically separated and work hours are disjoint, there is simply less opportunity for interaction. Therefore, it is imperative to maximize the exchange of information and the interactivity of the communications that do occur. Instant messaging is generally more expressive and responsive than email, but a voice call is higher bandwidth than instant messaging, and a video conversation is even better. Not only does the fact that you are on camera decrease the temptation to multi-task and be distracted, but video conveys subtle facial expressions and body language that are simply lost in other channels.
Turning on a camera is a good start, but not all video interactions are equally effective. When you have multiple monitors, face the one with the camera – especially when you are talking. Allowing others to directly see your eyes and mouth will help people understand you. This is extra helpful when you or the people you are speaking with are using a non-native language.
In practice, a mixture of communication channels will be appropriate. Email and instant messaging are ideal for a quick question or update, but don’t fall for the idea that they should completely replace a face-to-face conversation.
2. Good Communication Habits
- First and most important is to provide regular status updates – even when things are going well. Think of this as an extension to a daily stand-up. You are trying to make up for at least some of the countless micro-interactions that take place when a team is co-located. A slack channel or other shared chat room is perfect for this. More frequent, informal communications are probably better than fewer more comprehensive updates. Here is a sample structure for an effective update: This is what I tried…This is what we learned… (experiments that refute the hypothesis are not failures. The only failed experiments are ones that don’t teach you anything new)...This is what I plan to do next…This is when you can expect the next update…
- Ask questions as soon as you have them - Self-confidence and humility are complimentary, not contradictory characteristics for effective collaboration. You must be humble enough to admit when you don’t know something, but simultaneously self-confident enough to realize that asking the question will not make you look foolish. In many cases the rest of your team will be thankful that you ask a question because they are wondering the same thing but haven’t yet summoned the courage to ask.
- Constantly refine estimates as accurately as possible - Let the rest of the team know when a task looks like it will take more (or less) time than originally expected. A popular service strategy is to “under promise and over deliver”, but a more efficient approach is to constantly refine estimates as accurately as possible. If you develop a reputation for consistently delivering ahead of your estimates, people will begin to expect that and start automatically discounting what you tell them. To be honest, such a habit is good to adopt even in non remote work situations.
- Delivering Bad News: Sharing bad news with your distributed team is just as important (or sometimes more important) as sharing successes – you are building TRUST. It is OK to take personal accountability, but do not blame others or make excuses. Explain the situation fully, then shift to focus on the positive and the next actions to take. What will you do to prevent the same mistake in the future? Be part of the solution, not just part of the problem.
Good: "We have a problem"
Better: "We have a problem, but I can fix it"
Best: "We have this problem … I think we have the following options … and I recommend option X because …"
- Start fast and finish strong - At the end of a conversation, repeat back in your own words what you think you are being asked to do. It is even better if you do this in writing - for example sending out a list of agreed upon action items at the end of a meeting. Too often people will leave an interaction thinking that they have an agreement when they actually saw or heard things differently. It is a psychological fact that “What people remember is the beginning and the end... How we start, and how we finish… Therefore “start fast and finish strong” in remote work teams
- Set the right tone - Particularly when working with a new distributed team you want to:
- Demonstrate enthusiasm and interest
- Find some quick, easy wins - Show that you are adding value
- Don’t be afraid to speak up, your team is looking for new ideas
- It is OK to ask ‘obvious’ questions. Sometimes an Outsider’s perspective is exactly what is needed
- Fresh eyes offer valuable insights
- Anticipate possible issues and let your team know about them ahead of time.
- If something is going on in your personal life that MIGHT interfere with work, don’t wait until the last minute to let your team know - avoid surprises
- Use Email out of office replies and instant messaging status indicators to set clear expectations about when you will be able to reply to a question
3. Giving Feedback
Whether you are working remotely or in a distributed team or even otherwise, there will be times when colleagues disappoint or misunderstand each other. Avoiding these situations as much as possible and addressing them quickly when they do arise keeps the team functioning effectively.
Have ongoing and explicit discussions about team values, norms and expectations. Unless everyone has a common understanding about expectations, disagreements are far more likely to occur.
When someone does violate a team value, it is critical to give them feedback as early as possible. This addresses the behavior before it becomes a habit. Conversations like this can be difficult, particularly in remote setups, but they don’t have to be. Few pointers:
- Keep the conversation objective. Focus as much as possible on facts about things that actually occurred instead of speculating about motives.
- Describe the result of the behavior you observed. You can mention how it made you feel, but don’t make accusations about the other person’s character.
- Good: “I was frustrated when you missed the team meeting because I had an important question to ask you”
- Bad: “You missed the team meeting again because you are lazy”
- Remind the colleague about the team’s shared values and expectations.
- If you’ve had the discussion about these values ahead of time, nothing here should be controversial
- Be explicit about why the team decided those values are important. This leads naturally into the positive outcomes of behaving in accordance with those values and ends the conversation on a positive note.
- Example: “When you let me know when you will be unavailable and when you’ll be back, I am able to quickly determine if I need to find someone else to answer my question or if I can wait until you return.”
Time-zones can be surprisingly confusing. Know what daylight savings really means and use it appropriately. ‘Eastern Standard Time’ is not just whatever time it happens to be in New York. Daylight savings does not begin and end at the same time around the world and many locations don’t observe it at all.
Be considerate of your distributed team colleagues by expressing times in the local format(s) that are most natural for them. Don’t force others to do the conversions that you were too lazy or uninformed to do yourself. In situations where you need to ask people to meet at a time that is outside their normal business hours, you are at least demonstrating that you understand the implications of what you are asking. Example: “I know this will be late/early for you, but could we meet at 9:30 PM your time?”. When negotiating meeting times, be explicit about the time for both parties - E.g. “can we meet at 7:00 AM Eastern time, I think that is 4:30 PM in India”
Remote work requires that you be prepared to work flexible hours. In a globally distributed team, events will inevitably occur at times that are inconvenient for some. Try to spread these around so the burden is shared equally – it shows a willingness to compromise and a respect for the personal lives of your teammates.
A distributed team or a team engaging in remote work is most efficient when members are able to make decisions autonomously. Too much time is lost when permission or clarification is necessary and work hours do not overlap. To this end, the entire team should understand the strategic context in which they are operating. Invest time to frequently discuss organizational objectives and never be afraid to ask “why?”. Good leaders identify constraints but will not overly specify solutions.
Understanding a goal and being given the autonomy to exercise tactical decision making is highly correlated with improved morale (2). Empowered teams are not just more efficient, they are more productive and experience lower turn-over as a result of higher job satisfaction. Leaders must be willing to relinquish control and team
members must be confident enough to exercise their own judgement.
A good habit to establish is repeating back in your own words the objectives as you understand them or the goals that you are expected to achieve. Success metrics and timelines are more important to agree on than the implementation details. Inevitably a problem will occur that requires a deviation from a detailed plan. As long as the objectives are clear, team members can react in the moment and make decisions that are consistent with the overall goals. Autonomy is liberating, but it comes with a price – accountability. If team members are worried about meeting the agreed upon goals, they must communicate this as early as possible. The sooner problems are recognized, the more time there is to address them. Sharing ‘failures’ openly in an environment free from punishment allows the rest of the team to learn and avoid repeating the same mistakes in the future.
6. Situational and Cultural Awareness
Understand the holidays and cultural traditions that are celebrated in your teammates’ locations. Learn which ones tend to be important family celebrations and are more likely to involve travel away from home or be extended by personal leave (e.g. the week between Christmas and New Year’s in the US). Then deconflict important meetings so that teammates are not forced to choose between work and family commitments.
If you are feeling ambitious you should try to learn some of the languages your teammates speak, or at least understand the pronunciation rules. It makes a great first impression when you can correctly pronounce someone’s name on the first try.
Build situational awareness of what is happening in your teammates’ locales including major weather, politics, arts, and other newsworthy events. Being able to chat knowledgably about these topics demonstrates a genuine interest in your colleagues, helps you relate to any personal situations they are dealing with, and dramatically improves trust and empathy.
A capable remote team wins or loses together. The secret to collaborating effectively with a globally distributed team lies in making the most of the time that you do have together so that your time apart is most productive. This starts with establishing high bandwidth communication channels and practicing good habits (speak slowly, face the camera, repeat back in your own words, provide frequent updates/feedback).
The right environment will sustain a successful team. Trust is essential. Leaders have a responsibility to articulate clear objectives and give teams the freedom to exercise their own skills and creativity. Consequently, teams must ask for clarification, report problems early, and demonstrate initiative when faced with uncertainty. Flexibility, empathy, and autonomy are critical skills that when developed properly will distinguish the truly exceptional collaborators from the merely ordinary.
Workspaces That Move People
For Many, Remote Work Is Becoming Permanent in Wake of Coronavirus
Why are Companies Ending Remote Work?
Sorry, but Working From Home Is Overrated