The Trickiest Parts about Remote Teams
Distributed teams can be amazing — you can pull together amazingly talented people from wherever they may be. But they come with distinct challenges, in particular around culture and shared understanding. It is easy for remote teammates to feel disconnected from each other and from the team's mission. If you are not diligent, it is also easy to create information "haves" and "have nots". Both of those problems kill productivity and undermine the foundation of whatever it is you are trying to accomplish together.
A general rule of thumb has emerged that if one person is remote, you should act like everyone is remote. This takes discipline, especially if a portion of the team is co-located, and the watchful eye of a determined leader.
Things to Do
- Try to bring everyone together at least 2 or 3 times a year, and make sure to bake in social bonding time. The rewards you get from the in-person bonding is totally worth the cost.
- Create regular rituals that bring the team together, such as weekly kick-off and wrap-up meetings, and possibly daily "stand ups". Never add more meetings than you need, but these connection points are useful to keep the team aligned.
- Invest in tools and be disciplined about using them. Invest in audio quality, since nothing is more frustrating than not being able to hear what someone else is saying.
- Especially for newer teams, create a team "working agreement" where everyone agrees to a basic set of standards (overlapped work hours, how vacations and time-off are approved and communicated, standard meetings/rituals, etc)
- Make sure that important conversations happen in the open, either on video or chat, and if it is particularly important, then put a synthesized version on your internal blog.
- When you have group conversations, either have everyone log into the video room or ensure that everyone is on camera (even if this means turning a laptop or mobile phone to face whoever is speaking at the time). This will foster social connections, make it easier for everyone to pay attention (rather than get lost browsing the Web), and make it easier to understand each other (compared to an audio-only interface).
- Move heated debate (which can often be invaluable) to video. Keep this away from text channels like chat or email. (Seriously, don't be afraid to weigh into an argument and make them move to video!)
- Pay careful attention to individual and team accountability. The best teams hold themselves and each other accountable, but few people like calling out a colleague so this requires managerial attention.
- Think about ways to create social bonding, and definitely find ways for people to publicly appreciate each other. For example, if you do a weekly wrap-up meeting, create a structure where people can nominate others for great work or helping a colleague.
In our experience, it is better to combine a set of scalpels (i.e. specifically designed tools) rather than use a swiss army knife. With those specialized tools, use them for what they are good at, and don't try to use them for what they are not good at (for example, don't use a wiki as a blog).
- Invest in decent video conferencing tools. These don't have to be expensive. Zoom is currently our favorite option for video. Cameras and microphones (we like ClearOne's Chat 170) are not that expensive.
- Use an internal blog (like Jotto!) to keep everyone on the same page for more thoughtful topics such as strategic direction, OKRs, lessons learned, challenges faced, new teammates, and more.
- Use chat software (like Slack or Hipchat) to enable constant communication
- Use a platform for shared documents (Google Drive, Dropbox, Box)
- For technical documentation, use a wiki
- Be careful with a new teammate who has never worked remotely before, or very junior hires who tend to need more structure and oversight. It's a lot easier bringing these kinds of people on once who have your remote structure working very smoothly.
- Depending on your work, it can be very challenging to extend across too many time zones. For any kind of activity where you need real-time collaboration, it is best to have everyone work essentially the same hours of the day. Once you extend beyond 3 or 4 time zones, this takes a pretty strong commitment from someone far away from the mean time.
Image Credits: Kontor (now Workframe), Annie Spratt, Ricardo Rocha,