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A Survival Guide for Remote Teams

Working on a distributed team can be challenging. How do you develop a sense of team? How do you stay productive? How do you collaborate? How did you get to know one another when you can’t talk around the water cooler? Working on or managing a remote team can take a bit of panache, but it isn’t impossible.

Here are some helpful tips for individual contributors and managers working in remote teams.

Tips for Remote Individual Contributors

1: Create a Comfortable Remote Workspace

Figure out what the right working ambiance is for you - what type of music, lighting etc. do you work best with - the best part of working remotely is you can control your surroundings (vs. those in an office where it might be too loud/quiet/cold/hot, etc.).

Have a “workspace” and make it as separate as possible from the rest of your living area. Having a place where you can sit down and “be at work” is important for focus and makes it easier to avoid the “oh, I’ll just... (put in a load of laundry, say hi to whoever is home or work non-stop without breaks, etc.)’ temptation.

2: Learn Remote Communications Etiquette

Technology has made it really easy for organizations to ping individuals and groups instantly — whether via Slack, email or other communications technology. But that “always-on” environment can lead to communication overload, lack of productivity, and a chaotic work atmosphere.

Communications Etiquette Protocols

  • Choose your communication method wisely. Between email, chat, and even text messaging, choose the method to get in touch that fits best with the time of day and when the other person will see it.
  • Respect free and busy times, even if you’re on when others are off.
  • When in doubt, ask. Don’t assume. Think about the little things about office communication — especially emails and chats — that annoy you. Now think about how awesome it would be if someone asked you about them before they just did them. Ask your coworker if it’s okay to ping them when they’re at lunch or out for an afternoon.
  • Schedule emails to send during office hours. If you work with people around the globe, don’t be afraid to schedule email to go out when you know others will be around to see it.
  • Tame your notifications. A vibrating, beeping phone with chats and emails is no fun for anyone, especially when you’re off work. Turn off push notifications at the end of the day, or customize them so  only pre-approved apps or people get to vibrate your phone or wake you up when it’s after hours.
  • Use “Do Not Disturb” on your chat client to silence notifications. People in-office have the advantage of “headphones on” being their “Do Not Disturb” but no one can see a remote worker’s headphone status.

4: Tips for Time Management

Working remotely is a joy for many of us. We are more productive in our work and thrive in the environment. Find what works best for you. Here are some tips:

  • Set time limits for your work day especially if you work from home. It’s easy for calls and emails to cut into your personal life if you don't have a clear boundary between office and home. When you work remotely it’s easy to let the whole day flash by while you’re attached to your laptop as it’s your lifeline to everyone else.
  • Once you’re “off,” resist the temptation to “just check on one thing” when you’re not working. It’s easy to walk past your workspace and sit down and get sucked in. Next thing you know it’s dark outside and you forgot to eat dinner.
  • Understand that other remote employees have work hours too, just like anyone at the office. Just because their computer may be at their home, it doesn’t mean that they’ll be free to hop in at any time and talk about something.

Tips for Managers of Remote Workers

1: Provide Frequent Feedback & Employee Engagement

Feedback and engagement become especially important for team members who are less visible or interact with colleagues infrequently because of remote working.

  • Invest in feedback software. Leadership can connect directly with team members, and team members can provide input on how the company can improve (anonymously if desired).
  • Rethink employee incentives. Incentives are an interesting component of company culture, and there is no one-size-fits all incentive structure that is attractive to all employees. For remote workers, it’s important to think about what matters to the individual and their environment. Work with your people to define what incentives look like for remote workers beyond salary and title expectations.

2: Offer Remote Workers Learning Experiences to Grow Skills

Learning experiences, whether courses or conferences, are important to skills development within an organization.

  • Set up goals and objectives. What will the employee achieve, and how will the activity create value for the company? Does the request fit into any of the company’s priorities for the quarter or year?
  • Quantify those goals. Before signing off on a conference, encourage that attendees secure a specific number of meetings, connections, or leads from an event. If the employee is taking part in a course, try to quantify the time this person will take from their existing role to implement their new skills within the organization.

3. Provide Remote Workers Access To Technology

It’s important that full-time remote employees have access to the right technology to do their job. Whether it’s hardware or software, no employee should be left to fend for themselves in procuring the right equipment.

4. Remote Team Meetings

Make sure to use a conferencing or video chatting program (like Webex) for remote folks to be able to participate in meetings. This can be a regular phone teleconference or web-based conference program. Try to use a program that allows everyone to see one another.

Encourage participation in meetings. Sometimes it can be tough as a remote employee to jump into a group conversation without interrupting. Be sure to frequently ask remote employees what they would like to add to the discussion. Also, be aware of your proximity to the microphones...if you’re sitting farther away, ask if remote employees can hear you speaking before contributing what you have to say.

5. Remote Team Building

Team building for remote teams can be a challenge, but not impossible. Here are a couple of activities that you can use to promote a sense of team inside and outside of your regularly scheduled team calls and stand-ups.

  • Upgraded Version of "Show and Tell." Each of your remote team workers will bring an item to the video call, which could be one with strong sentimental value, a personal story, or no connection at all, each of your team members tells a story about their object.
  • Name That Throwback. Before the start of your meeting, make a playlist of songs that were popular ten or more years ago. Play the songs through your video chatting platform and have people “buzz in” through the text chat. They can simply type in an “x” and send it or something of that nature to show who buzzed in first.
  • Geographic Fun Facts. Before the meeting, ask members to be ready to share three unusual fun-facts about the city/state/country they live in that aren’t commonly known.  This can be a good way to learn something new while improving understanding of the location and cultural environment where your teammates work.
  • Movie Night. Agree to watch the same movie or TV episode during the week, then challenge members to share and compare something about what they saw.  It could be suggested alternate endings, favorite character, an early plot twist that would negate the whole point of the show, or anything else your imagination suggests. Share reviews and get requests for the next movie night selection!
  • Share a Skill. Teams are made up of diverse individuals with different skills, give everyone the opportunity to share a hobby or skill with the group that isn’t work-related. This can be a workshop style where everyone engages in a shared activity, like folding origami, or an educational session, like preparing a favorite recipe.

Working on remote teams doesn’t come without its challenges. It does require everyone to expend a little extra effort to stay connected and develop a sense of community. The key thing to remember is to be respectful and transparent with communications and every member of the team. Great teams produce great outcomes.

Here are some related resources:

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Managing Remote Workers