If you manage or work in a remote team, you’ve probably come to appreciate the advantages remote work can offer. You have flexibility over your location and in most cases, you have flexibility over when the best time is for you to work.
You don’t have the overhead that companies who co-locate employees have, but you do have one particularly distinct disadvantage:
The logistics of getting a team working well on projects together remotely.
You rely on good teamwork in order for projects to be completed at a high standard, but the relationship-building that naturally happens in an office environment doesn’t come so easily on a remote team. In fact, when you look at any successful project, the common thread tends to be how well team members operated together.
Your business might use the best of the tools that are available to manage your projects, you might have the clearest procedures written down for team members to follow, but those tools and procedures can’t replace people and they can’t replicate the camaraderie that is naturally developed in successful co-located project teams.
What remote teams need, if they are to be successful, is to have in place some strategies for creating a strong team environment and encouraging collaboration, even when they can’t hit the pub together or socialize during work hours.
Here are some of our tips for building a better remote team project environment;
#1. Get to know people as individuals
If you’ve spent some time in remote work, you’ve probably experienced how easily team members can begin to feel like another cog in the machine rather than a team member who is individually valued. It’s not that people deliberately want to be precious little snowflakes, but we do know from research that individual recognition helps people to feel appreciated, which in turn can increase their commitment to the business.
Team members who feel appreciated as an individual will also tend to “go the extra mile” and be more open to constructive feedback, if needed.
Another reason you should prioritize getting to know team members as individuals is that to manage effectively, you should have a good grasp over what their relative strengths and weaknesses are. For example, if you were to assign a task to a remote team member and the task is outside of their expertise, it’s possible that they might not feel entirely comfortable explaining that to you if you haven’t made the effort to get to know them. They don’t know you well and they don’t know how you’ll react. Many will just keep quiet and struggle on.
Ideally, you want to put yourself in a position where you understand exactly what a team members weaknesses may be and can leverage their relative strengths. If you know that a task will be a stretch for a team member, then you should be prepared to offer extra support.
Action: For each team member you bring on, spend some time getting to know them. Find out their goals, personalities, beliefs, work habits and even their work preferences. If someone has already told you “I prefer not to do X, as I don’t have the skills”, then don’t be surprised if, when you go ahead and assign that to them anyway, they struggle!
#2. Find ways to encourage team morale
You bring together a group of people who are often in different locations, time zones or countries and expect them to work well together to reach project goals. While it’s fair to assume that you’ve probably looked for people who are an ideal fit for a remote environment, don’t neglect the fact that it’s up to management to create the right kind of atmosphere for them to thrive.
Reward and recognition is one thing - when someone does something well, celebrate it! Make it part of your team culture to celebrate successes often, even if that’s just via a shout-out on the team Slack channel.
The other thing you can be doing is encouraging team members to get to know each other. This could be through learning trivia about each other, encouraging team members to seek regular feedback or arranging for them to have one-on-one calls.
Zapier introduced “pair buddies” to help team member get to know each other better;
“As we've grown, it can be harder to know all your teammates. One easy way to mitigate that is to have folks on the team get paired up with one other teammate at random each week for a short 10-15 minute pair call. We use this to chat about life, work or whatever random thing seems interesting. Sometimes cool new product features come out of these, other times it's just good fun. Regardless it helps everyone better know their teammates.”
Action: Make rewards, recognition and team get-to-know-yous part of your team culture.
#3. Be completely in (or out)
One of the common traits of remote business owners or managers is that they often have a lot on their plates. They’re developing this service over here as an add-on, tweaking that software over there and trying to stay on top of team issues at the same time.
Of course, this is doable if you’re able to work your schedule sufficiently, but many find that “getting things done” gets in the way and the item that gets neglected is often team issues.
Here’s the thing, if you’re skimming over team issues and firing out “quick and dirty” answers, they know. It’s obvious when you’re not committing as much time to understanding their issues. The end result of that can be unhappy team members who don’t feel listened to, which is hardly conducive with effective project management!
This is why we say be all in or all out. If you’re going to deal with team issues, be fully present in doing so. Talk to team members directly and hear the issues in their own words. Take the time to formulate a response that acknowledges the team member and where they’re coming from.
If you can’t commit to that, seriously, delegate a manager who can and give them the authority to make the calls. Either way, you need an option where team members' concerns are dealt with effectively.
Action: Make an honest commitment - can you be fully present for team members? If not, delegate someone who is and who has decision-making authority.
#4. Be open to feedback
This really piggybacks on directly from that last point. Sometimes team managers have difficulty “seeing the woods for the trees” as it were. Being open to honest feedback can help promote a healthy team environment that strives to improve continuously.
A key is to practice what you preach. There are plenty of examples of workplaces that, on the surface say they’re open to feedback, but the reality is quite different. If you react defensively, ignore some parts of the feedback for others or ignore the feedback altogether, then you’ll probably find team members stop giving you any.
Do you want a team who blows smoke and sticks to what they think you want to hear? Or, do you want genuine feedback that helps your business to grow? Part of nailing this is acknowledging where you could improve too. Being the manager who is “always right” won’t lead to top project results!
Action: Practice active listening and encourage honest feedback.
#5. Monitor communication effectiveness
There are many possible communication pitfalls that can befall remote teams. Perhaps the message didn’t come across as intended, the message was lost or communication becomes a convoluted mess.
This sometimes happens when you’re using more than one communication method, or you’re using one that is ineffective. When it comes to remote projects, email is seriously one of the most ineffective forms of communication. Things go missing in crowded inboxes and may even be missed completely.
Teams who use an app, such as Slack, for communication often find this more effective, particularly if channels are divided up logically (such as by project). Communicating within your project management app may also be an option.
The key is to keep monitoring. If you experience communication issues, is there a better way to handle them? For example, in Slack you can create conversation threads so that people aren’t searching through comments on different topics to get what they need.
Action: Monitor communication effectiveness and be prepared to make changes in order to improve.
#6. Make objectives clear
This is one of the struggles of communication in remote projects. Do all team members and stakeholders have the same thoughts as to objectives of the project?
Depending on your project type, you might have objectives set out on a weekly basis (such as for an agile sprint), but the important part is having everyone on the same page as to what those objectives are.
Action: A strong and open collaboration method tends to be the answer. Get team members and stakeholders to clarify and to confirm they understand and agree with objectives.
As a remote team, you don’t have the advantage that being co-located brings when it comes to developing interpersonal relationships. Team members can’t chat over the water cooler and you miss important communication methods, such as body language.
The “human element” is the key ingredient of successful projects, so you need to do your best to foster those human relationships in the remote environment.
Make it a habit to know your team members well individually, be open to feedback and use effective communication methods. You’ll find that improvements in these areas not only boost team morale, but overall performance too.