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How to Build a Collaborative Remote Team

Rob Warner

Remote work is here to stay. One survey found that 80% of company leaders plan to allow employees to work remotely at least part of the time after the pandemic, and 47% will allow employees to work from home full-time. According to Upwork, that's an 87% increase in remote work due to the pandemic. And there are several factors to this. More time at home means more flexibility for family time, less commuting time, and some even estimate higher productivity than their in-office counterparts. Yet every new opportunity comes with new challenges, and while we've talked a lot about the benefits of remote work and remote team building activities on this blog, we've yet to address some of the more basic requirements to managing and optimizing a remote team. So if you've recently joined a remote company or are looking for ways to manage your remote team members, read on. 

Remote Teams Are Changing the Role of Management

For the sake of this blog, we are addressing most managers whose workforce can work remotely and do not have in-person responsibilities that require them to visit an office. While the challenges of the day-to-day may be different depending on industry and function, the top-level requirements are pretty much the same: manage employee efficiency and effectiveness at supporting company goals. The role of a manager has of course also evolved to address more personal issues regarding employee morale, career growth, and company culture. In each of these areas, managers must steer their teams to be effective in remote work by adjusting their management style to meet the specific challenges of virtual teams. For this blog, let's break this down (and oversimplify) into two categories: professional and personal. 

On a professional level, managers have to get work done. Just as the introduction of the personal computer, internet, and a myriad of work tools have both improved and complicated the work environment, remote work has similarly disrupted the traditional office place and provided opportunities and challenges for employees to get work done. For example, ad hoc communication may not happen without team members sitting side by side. Additionally, impromptu status updates by the water cooler aren't going to happen without physical water coolers. Therefore, managers have to design and implement different strategies to make sure employees are working effectively and productively without some of the benefits of in-person interactions. 

On a personal level, remote work provides a lot of opportunities to improve employee satisfaction. More time at home and fewer hours commuting can have a demonstrable impact on employee morale. However, without making an effort to remind employees they are part of a team and a larger company mission, company culture, and employee satisfaction can wane. 

As managers of remote workers adjust their work styles to accommodate their remote workforce, they must address both aspects equally to sustain happy, motivated teams. 

How do you Create a Team Remotely?

Starting with the basics, there are a couple of principles you should embrace to set your remote team up for success, starting with the hiring process. 

If it's not already included, make sure prospective new hires know your remote work policy, including expectations of in-office work (if any), resources available for remote employees, and any retreats or in-person gatherings they may be expected to attend. Addressing this upfront will hopefully avoid any confusion or friction when new employees are onboarded. Speaking of, there are many ways virtual onboarding may differ from its in-person counterpart, but we wrote a whole post about that so we'll just leave that here. Finally, and especially if your company is moving to a remote model vs. starting in one, collaboration with your employees around what remote work looks like is key. Collecting feedback and regularly assessing processes can ensure that as the team grows and new teammates are added, their needs and preferences are being met in a remote workplace. 

How to Build a Collaborative Remote Team 

So, you've hired a great team and you have clear company goals. How do you make sure those goals are communicated? How can you gather reports on employee output to make sure you're meeting your targets? And how can you do all this while addressing the needs and requirements of your colleagues? 

Here are the basic building blocks of effectively building a collaborative remote team:

Establish Clear Goals & Expectations

Have you ever worked on something and put a lot of time and effort into it, only to discover that in the end it didn't contribute to any larger company or team goals and was eventually scrapped? Hopefully not, but if you have, you know the frustration that comes with working in a silo and not knowing how your work impacts the larger picture. 

Start here. Make sure your team knows the company's goals, your team's goals, and how their individual work fits into this. This can be done with a project management tool like Monday.com (we're personally big fans), or it can be as simple as a Google doc. Employee innovation is critical for any company's success and if employees are working passionately on something, it's a good sign they're engaged. However, if the work isn't aligned with the company or founders' vision, that work could go unutilized and the employee will most likely become disenchanted with the work. Avoid this at all costs by embracing employee drive and referencing larger goals to make sure their work is valued. 

Additionally, set clear expectations on where you want the team to go over the next month, quarter and year. Work with the team to establish ambitious yet attainable goals to foster employee engagement and set clear expectations of what you want the work to look like. Many are predicting the end of the five-day workweek, as remote work means there's less pressure put on "clocking in" 9 to 5, Monday to Friday. By setting clear expectations, you can grant employees leeway to stop working whenever they've accomplished their goals. This can lead to much higher employee satisfaction without sacrificing work output. 

Communicate, Communicate, Communicate

Author's note: this does not mean micromanage. It can be tempting as a remote manager to use Slack or another chat app to ping your employees whenever you want an update on a specific project. Avoid this temptation. While it may seem innocuous to you as you are just looking for a status update, the employee may see it as a signal that you are second-guessing their work or checking in on them to make sure they're working and not vegging out on the couch. 

Setting up an effective means of communication means utilizing instant and asynchronous methods to monitor team output. Going back to the first point, setting up clear expectations of communication is just as valuable as having the tools. For example, if you do a daily standup to update the team on progress, they know what's expected of them in that meeting. Similarly, if you have a weekly 1:1 with your reports, you can set expectations about what you want to talk about there so they can come prepared. Yes, individual Slack channels can be incredibly useful to collaborate in real-time on different projects, but too many distractions can detract from employee productivity and lead to employee resentment if misinterpreted. 

Provide the Tools Teams Need to Be Successful

While we're on the subject of communication, let's talk about the tools needed to be effective at communicating. Many remote teams are very familiar with Slack, and a video conferencing service like Zoom or Google Hangouts is critical when real-time meetings are needed. There are many tools out there to optimize for remote work (and more coming out by the day), and with the savings in the overhead of no office expenses, you should repurpose those dollars into tools that will make work easy for your team. Some tools will be team-wide, but if a new team member requires a specific tool to be successful and it doesn't hurt the overall team infrastructure, why wouldn't you invest in that? Supporting your remote team means advocating for their wellbeing, including new tools that can make their life easier. 

Embrace Asynchronous work 

This may be a tough pill to swallow, but if you're holding your employees to a rigid 9-5 workday, you're missing out on one of the key benefits of remote work. Yes, it is reasonable to expect employees to be "clocked in" at certain hours of the day, but if you've nailed the expectations and communication piece, there's no reason to hold your employees to a rigid workday. Within any team, you are going to have a mix of early risers, long lunch takers, employees with kids, those who like to work late into the night, and everything in between. If you've set expectations and left time for virtual meetings, why not let employees set their own hours? Most research points to remote workers being happier as well as more productive, with a large factor being employees who can set their own hours. By embracing asynchronous work you can harness a huge inherent benefit of remote work and hit multiple birds with one asynchronous stone. 

Invest in Developing your Team

Investing in your team's professional development will support both the personal and professional growth of your team and can have reverberative results on your company goals output. Talk to your reports regularly and ask them about their career goals. Investing in online learning, conferences, and certifications can boost employee morale and improve productivity. If the development they are seeking is not exactly in line with their trajectory within the company, many HR managers say do it anyway. The benefit to the employee who sees advancement opportunities elsewhere is far greater than the detriment to one who feels stuck in their job. 

Foster meaningful connections

This doesn't mean go all WeWork cult on us. What it means is treating your remote team members like humans: acknowledging their home lives, personal preferences, and individuality. Start with some icebreakers to get to know one another and support your team members in getting to know one another with programs like rotating lunches. Schedule time with each report to discuss work preferences and capture feedback. When all else fails, a company-sponsored happy hour is never a bad idea, and virtual team-building activities are a must. Consider virtual trivia to get employees out of their shells and collaborating on something other than work. It's a great opportunity to build deeper bonds and spice up a virtual happy hour.  

Invest in Regular, In-Person Meetups

There's only so much interaction you can foster with conference calls and video conferencing. Eventually, to foster connectivity and work planning, you should consider regular in-person meetups. Depending on how your team is dispersed, meeting up in a major city for a planning offsite once or twice a year will be instrumental in getting buy-in for those company goals and setting clear expectations for the year ahead. Plus, who doesn't like a company retreat? A few days of planning with some in-person team building is a necessary part of remote work to tackle your planning and provide an extra benefit to remote workers. 

Don't Forget about Remote Culture 

Culture doesn't happen automatically, and in a remote-first world, it can take longer to materialize. If you're in a small company, set values so your employees know what the company prioritizes, and then use those values to inform how you invest in supporting a remote culture. It could be through gift cards for hard work, team building games to show appreciation, welcome parties for new team members, or any other number of gestures. It can also touch on things like communication style and meeting efficiency, i.e. do you get right down to business or allow a little time to catch up on the latest episode of Survivor. All in all, you'll want to take note of the culture that emerges organically and make efforts to steer it in the right direction if it's not in line with company values. 

Conclusion: Embrace the Possibilities of Remote Work instead of Clinging to the Standards of In-Person 

There are a lot of benefits to remote work: flexible hours, more personal time, no commute. But like with any disruption in the workplace, it brings its unique set of challenges. By addressing those challenges head-on and leaning into the benefits of a virtual team, you can take advantage of the new work style and improve employee happiness and productivity. Don't wait for it to happen organically, though. A remote team without guidance can go off the rails. Set the course for your team to succeed in a remote world and we may never see the inside of the office again! 

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