I’ve been part of or managing remote teams for over a decade now, and I can safely say that shifts in technology and culture during this short space of time have been immense.
In ten years, I’ve gone from “managing the risk” of having one key resource off-site to being totally comfortable with entire teams scattered across the planet.
In this article, I’m going to share some of the insights I’ve learned during this time. I’ll be discussing what’s shifted in my use of technology as well as my personal priorities in becoming more comfortable with a decentralized workforce.
Many of the tips I discuss here may seem a little “abstract.” If you’re a highly pragmatic, solution-focused entrepreneur, you could be tempted to look at “soft” advice on topics like company culture with some skepticism. I highly recommend that you take these subjects seriously, and I assure you that they will affect your bottom line.
1. Enable Healthy Boundaries and Encourage Flexibility
Time zone differences are a health hazard – especially when working on projects that require extensive collaboration. Well-motivated staff members feel ownership of their work and want to be involved in conversations that relate to it. This is a good thing! How often have managers pushed for teams to have a greater sense of accountability?
However, when this comes at the cost of someone’s personal life – their hobbies and relationships – you will see diminishing productivity returns in the long term. And possibly even a high staff turnover, which could be catastrophic for any business.
The solution? Put your employees first and measure your staff’s value based on their output rather than their availability. Where possible, make it absolutely clear that your employees have full control over when they work, as long as they deliver what they say they’re going to deliver on time.
Of course, there will be exceptions. Meetings need to take place, and it goes without saying that these should be scheduled at a time that suits the majority of your workforce, rather than just the senior members of staff. People feel appreciated when their lives are taken into consideration. And when it comes to fostering healthy company culture, this is another way to promote the notion that people should have a life outside of work.
Maintaining a good work-life balance revolves around healthy sleeping patterns, yet this aspect is often overlooked. As much as possible, structure your operations in ways that respect employees’ need for a good night’s rest.
2. Do Virtual Meetings Right
They’re reviled by some and overvalued by others, but either way, meetings can’t be avoided – even in a decentralized work world. An organization needs dialogue. What’s vital for productivity and healthy work culture is that organizers address the unique challenges online meetings pose.
Firstly, recognize that online meetings will take longer than their real-world counterparts. Technical issues are one of the main culprits. Misunderstandings that stem from misreading someone’s facial expression or vocal tone could derail a discussion and cause confusion.
There are several ways to ensure that you get what you need from the time allocated to an online meeting:
- Create a detailed agenda and encourage feedback on item relevance.
- Get attendees to start mulling over their opinion on certain items that will need consensus.
- Promote casual pre-meeting conversations in virtual meeting places so that you can hit the ground running when the meeting starts.
Secondly, make sure that the meeting organizer keeps attendees focused on the topic being discussed. In the real world, it’s hard to “switch off” or become distracted. Everyone can see you playing Clash of Clans on your phone when you’re sitting at a table.
Those in charge of the meeting need to pay close attention to the level of input that attendees give the conversation. Where an important team member is not chiming in with their opinion, it’s likely they’ve become distracted. A timely, diplomatic question like: “Do you agree with the way this chat is going?” is a great way to pull them back in.
Lastly, use industry-leading conferencing software. Ensure that everyone in your organization has access and knows how to use it before the meeting starts.
3. Create Dedicated Virtual Spaces for Specific Interactions
The digital world is flooded with tools that help remote teams communicate effectively. While most of these share common fundamental features, each of them does something better than the other. It’s critical that you understand what each communication platform is best at and use it for that purpose. Don’t shoehorn all of your interactions into one tool when a more appropriate, affordable alternative exists.
Let’s take a look at the most popular tools and highlight what makes them exceptional at what they do.
Slack is amazing at integration. The Slack app directory is packed with tools that help extend the chat platform into a multi-functional workplace. The array of extension categories is truly staggering. From customer support and file management to calendar management and developer tools, Slack has you covered.
Codeshare is a real-time coding environment that allows software developers to collaborate on development in real-time. When combined with your video conferencing tool of choice, it creates a terrific virtual space for quality assurance and mentorship for technical teams.
Loom is a lightweight presentation tool that packs a massive productivity punch. With the click of a couple of buttons, the user is able to record the actions on their laptop screen as well as the audio from their microphone. Publishing the video is just as easy because the file is cloud-hosted, so all the recipients need is the link to view it.
WooBoard is a delightful concept that’s ideal for making a decentralized team feel closer together. Essentially, it allows administrators to create reward programs and give employees official recognition for a job well done. It’s essentially a micro-incentive tool that shines a spotlight on team members’ achievements that would have gone unnoticed otherwise. An integrated chat feature allows colleagues to have conversations relating to the task or project.
4. Build Productivity Data and Knowledge
While tools like Asana and Trello facilitate the allocation of tasks and basic project management, they offer little in the way of productivity analytics. In fact, many companies don’t even understand the enormous benefit of building raw data on what employees are spending their time on. Nor do they see the advantages of converting this data into insights that could help fix enormous productivity leaks in the organization.
When working with remote teams who keep strange hours and seldom interact with a line manager, calendar analytics becomes extremely valuable. Applications like TimeTackle offer a host of solutions in this space, all focused on ensuring that you and your teams are spending their time on tasks that are most valuable to the company.
The best part about productivity analytics is that, over a long period of time, leaders are able to make small but extremely valuable adjustments to workflows, communication lines, and team priorities.
5. Encourage Teams to Eliminate Distractions
In the absence of a hardworking colleague sitting right next to me, I find myself increasingly prone to distraction. Working alone at home is hard. Ask anyone who’s tried it. Marinara is a Chrome extension that helps the user apply the beloved and highly effective Pomodoro technique to their daily work life.
If you’re not familiar with it, the technique involves keeping the worker focused on their task for a specified amount of time, typically 25 minutes. In the corner of their browser, they notice the countdown, and when it is reached, they are rewarded with a short break.
Different people use different settings, depending on their own work habits. Personally, I have mine set to 12-minute work sprints and three-minute breaks. After five sprints, a long 20-minute break kicks in, during which I usually go for a walk outside or play with my cat.
In an office environment, where other people’s visible productivity is a great motivator, I wouldn’t see the need for a tool like this. As part of a remote team, where there are literally no eyes on me, I find this tool absolutely indispensable. I highly recommend it to all remote teams.
Remote work is not a fad. It’s not going away. In fact, all signs point to it becoming even more popular, especially during a time when the world is held hostage by a pandemic.
At times like these, it’s vital that company leadership steps up to ensure everyone in the organization can perform at their peak. Aside from implementing the tips, I discussed here, I’d also like to point out that the best way to encourage people to apply them is to lead by example.
Don’t just give people a tool and wait for them to use it correctly. Take every opportunity you’ve got to use it yourself and illustrate its benefit.