Making Remote Work Work for you

When the pandemic started in early 2020, most employers and employees had no idea what working from home was all about. We knew about video calls, Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and Webex, but we had rarely used them. We had to learn as we went, a crash course in scheduling virtual meetings, turning cameras and microphones on and off, aiming the camera so it framed us properly, setting up video backgrounds and filters, and, in the interest of family harmony, using noise-cancelling earbuds and headphones.

Overnight our homes doubled as offices and classrooms (as well as gyms and yoga studios). We rearranged furniture, repurposed dining rooms, bedrooms, and guest rooms, created elaborate multicolored work schedules for who worked where and when. Little things like clothes on the floor or unmade beds became potential career killers and the source of family arguments. What if you needed to take a shower while your partner was on an important video call? Electric bills skyrocketed with the extra heat and AC.

For those of us who had the luxury of working from home, it was a new, and to some, liberating experience. How exciting that you could wear pajama pants all day and no one would know (except everyone else doing the same thing)! We were more involved with our kids, saw our spouses more often, and were able to cuddle with our animals all day long. (We had no idea the dog liked to sit on the coffee table to stare out the front window.) We learned how to stay safe, be productive, and become a full-time parent and part-time teacher all while holding down a full-time job.

Meanwhile, employers had to learn on the fly how to manage remotely and were pushed to innovate in ways they never expected. How do you take in-person management styles online? Managers had to learn how to give their workers freedom and trust them to use it wisely and effectively, while at the same time keeping them engaged, not letting them feel like they were marooned on a virtual desert island. It was a fine line.

If remote work offers employees flexibility in how they get their work done, remote work also offers employers flexibility in how they put together their work teams. Because location no longer matters, remote work opens employers to a whole world of talent—literally—that wasn’t available before. With many of their workers virtual, many companies have been able to downsize costly office space. Even once Covid restrictions were lifted, many continued to limit the number of workers onsite.

In short, remote work has changed what we expect, require, and want from work, both as employers and employees.

What remains, however, is the need to get the job done, whatever that job may be. Although the new normal has created a workforce of teams spread across the world, these teams must still work together toward a common goal, to collaborate without the built-in structure of bricks and mortar and traditional work hours. That’s not always easy. In the absence of everyday engagement, many dispersed work teams struggle. Their sense of team and teamwork is stretched thin by the distance. Team building suffers.

Virtual team building is difficult but not impossible. It requires patience and determination. It is also not optional, as it is critical for success in the post-lockdown hybrid workplace. To successfully build the culture and morale of your team of remote workers and keep their bond strong, you must establish an atmosphere of familiarity and provide tools and processes for effective communication.

Creating Familiarity

For remote workers to function as a team, they must get to know each other. That’s obvious. But how do they do that when separated by time and space? Here are a few thoughts.

  • Schedule meetings that every member can attend.
    • Time zones are challenging when scheduling team huddles. Be flexible in your scheduling, and respectful. For some the meeting will be at 7:00 a.m. and for others it will be 8:00 p.m. Figure out the sweet spot so all team members can attend and change times (within reason) so it’s not always the same team members inconvenienced.
    • Don’t let team members ignore the meetings; they are important now more than ever.
  • Play online games. These are great for engaging team members and building bonds between them. Try these links for online team-building activities and games:
  • Get creative with ZOOM-friendly activities. Projects such as painting pictures on ZOOM, doing group scavenger hunts, virtual happy hours, soap making, or other activities can be easily organized, with materials shipped to each employee. (If you are shipping materials, send them well in advance so everyone can receive them.)
    • Yes, these sound goofy and I was skeptical. UNTIL I tried an easy scavenger hunt with one of my teams. Their natural competitiveness came out, and we had a blast trying to find a pink highlighter.
  • Have each team member create a virtual tour of their workspace and present it to the team.
    • Knowing your team members’ environment helps create familiarity. While coaching a young executive, I saw her “dog” come in the doggie door. I am a sucker for a cute pooch, so I asked her the breed. Come to find out it was a pot-bellied pig! Who knew that Shannon owned a pot-bellied pig!
  • Encourage informal meetings and virtual water coolers. Eat breakfast together and discuss your lives before starting formal meetings. Employees can share how much or how little they want, but knowing more about their private lives goes a long way toward creating familiarity.
  • Don’t get hung up on the occasional interruption by a pet or child (or clueless spouse). These things are going to happen, and we’re all in the same boat. “Hi Madelyn” or “Hi Kitty” can diffuse the teammate’s embarrassment and provide a comic interlude.

Fostering Remote Team Communication

A large percentage of communication is nonverbal, more than half, say some thinkers on the subject. Remote workers, then, start with a huge disadvantage. Sure, one can see nonverbal clues on a Zoom call, depending on how big the screen is, but it’s not the same as in person.

To overcome the communication deficit, remote workers and managers must work hard to be direct and intentional in both written and oral communication. When writing emails, be clear and direct, yet diplomatic. Don’t assume people will “know what I mean.” Be thorough but succinct. Tone can be easily misinterpreted in writing. Resist the urge to be snarky and over the top. Be polite.

When communicating via videoconference, your mantra should be “know your audience.” For more formal meetings, be more formal. Use your words and complete sentences. Even if you’re not presenting per se, speak as if you are—slowly, directly, articulately. And this is critical—allow space for others to speak. Talking over someone may work to a degree in person, but if videoconferencing has taught us nothing else, it’s how distracting talking over someone can be online, how frustrating and ineffective for clear communication. Finish your thought, then listen. If you are leading the meeting, it’s a good idea to establish this guideline at the start and remind participants as necessary.

Here are other thoughts on how to create and support more effective remote communication:

  • Host group “venting” sessions.
    • You want your employees to be happy and productive, but that isn’t going to be the case one hundred percent of the time, especially in these challenging days. Don’t try to suppress dissatisfaction—it will just come out in other, even more negative ways. In one of my most successful team meetings, I gave each member five minutes to grouse about their work-from-home challenges. All of us could relate, and it brought us closer together.
    • Group venting has a hidden virtue—it often turns into problem-solving. When you get a bunch of smart people talking about a challenge, someone’s going to find a solution. Remember when no one knew how to do backgrounds on Zoom? Wasn’t there that one tech-savvy person in your meeting who taught everyone how to do it?
    • For more information about venting in the workplace, check out our upcoming newsletter about constructive venting.
  • Install a group chat program for all the employees to interact casually throughout the workday. Being able to communicate instantly and informally will help solve problems more quickly and foster stronger communication.
  • Use carbon copy emails but with very specific parameters.
    • For a group project, CC all group members even if they are not directly involved in the issue at hand. If Donna and Steve are emailing back and forth about the project, CC Louise even if she isn’t part of that specific conversation. That way she knows what’s going on, and it helps her feel she’s not being left behind.
  • Create goals as a team, then celebrate when you hit those goals with a video party.
    • Those goals can be as simple as everyone completing a training, or as complicated as hitting financial or production goals for the quarter. Working together to establish these goals ensures that all members are invested and on the same page.
  • Don’t forget to provide positive feedback. Everyone likes to be told they are appreciated and cared about. Since those assurances are absent with remote work, it is vital that a manager go above and beyond in offering those small positive interactions online.
    • When employees submit work to you in person, you provide positive feedback without even thinking about it. You might smile and say, “Thanks for putting a rush on this. Great job,” and literally pat them on the back or shoulder. In-person employees also get positive energy from the workers around them. Someone leaves them the last donut, someone tells maintenance the bathroom is out of TP, someone buys the receptionist flowers for her birthday and everyone enjoys them. But when employees work remotely, they miss out on all those small, positive, daily interactions and may not even be able to articulate what they are missing.
    • Some of the things I have seen work for remote team appreciation: sending your employees digital cards, sending flowers to employees who are sick or out having babies, telling employees good job more than you are accustomed to (but you have to mean it—people can see through false praise). These can make a huge difference on the mental health of your employees and can be the most important factor in building a strong and resilient remote work team.

Don’t Maroon Your Teams

Now that we are one year into vaccines, many employers have moved all their employees back into the office. Some have spread their employees across the country (and world) to work 100% remotely. Others have established a mix of the two.

Building strong teams under these conditions is possible and achievable. Some fixes will cost money, such as new chat platforms, whereas others will cost nothing but time and effort, such as a ten-minute bull session before a formal meeting or encouraging notes to remote team members. It takes time, patience, and determination for remote teams to feel bonded, but it’s worth the effort and will increase team morale and efficiency. Apply tried-and-true in-person techniques to your remote workers—get to know them, listen to them, let them vent every once in a while. At the same time, experiment with out-of-the-box virtual methods—best background contests, the most unusual workplace set-up, virtual coffee breaks.

Above all, don’t forget to actively lead your remote teams. This is when you earn your managers’ stripes. Don’t leave your team members marooned on virtual islands. That will benefit neither employer nor employee.