Over the past few months, all-remote work has transformed from a curious rarity into the new normal for companies across the globe. Previously, many employers offered partial-remote work opportunities, where employees still came into the office for part of the week or only a few members were remote.
With social isolation in full effect, those days are over, and it's not clear when they will return or if they will return. For example, big companies like Twitter have recently announced that they will support remote work even after COVID-19 is a thing of the past.
Many companies are trying to cope with being fully remote, which is different from partially remote work. Never seeing colleagues face to face makes it harder to collaborate and maintain healthy relationships. Luckily, some companies have been running remote teams for years and found ways to compensate for the limitations of long-term isolation.
In this article, I highlight the secrets for successfully managing a remote team.
Build a culture of continuous feedback.
Absence can make the heart grow fonder, but it can also sow distrust and animosity. When people interact over chat tools like Slack or through email, facts come across, but feelings conveyed through body language and tone of voice are lost. This creates an emotional void that can lead to anxiety.
Employees generally have good intentions and respect their peers, but it is easy to take a critical comment personally when it is delivered by text. People then build up fear that someone is mad at them or thinks they're doing a bad job, which causes them to be unhappy and withdraw from the team.
In an office environment, these types of misunderstandings resolve themselves naturally, because they come up over lunch or around the water cooler, where peers can provide reassurance about their feelings and intentions. How do you replace this coping mechanism in a remote environment? In short, the key to mitigating relationship anxiety on a remote team is to tell people how they made you feel early and often.
Have a feedback system.
Providing critical feedback can be hard for people, especially when they can't see each other in person. In addition to quarterly performance reviews, many companies follow the practice of continuous 360-degree feedback where employees and managers write down an assessment of everyone on their team each month. To encourage honesty, these assessments are only shared with a manager.
By encouraging everyone to provide regular direct feedback, they realize that others are generally grateful to hear uncomfortable truths that breaks down their fear and reduces the need for encouragement in the future.
The end result of a continuous feedback culture is that people learn to give each other the benefit of the doubt in a remote environment. When social anxiety comes, the practice of delivering feedback helps team members to turn a negative emotion into a positive discussion that builds camaraderie and trust.
Write everything down.
One major difference between a remote workplace and an office is that people are not around to answer questions. If you receive an email with missing details from a co-worker who sits next door, it's easy to walk over and ask for clarification. On a remote team, any time you send an email, write a document or file a work ticket that is missing important information, work grinds to a halt, or worse, leads to a bad result.
Companies emphasize that it's critical for written communication to include all of the relevant context known to the author so that the reader can digest the information without having to go back and forth, which can take a lot longer when people are distributed.
How can you improve your writing? Many companies look for the following elements when guiding people on clear communication:
Goals: The first and most important thing to communicate is what you are trying to achieve. People often think that their goals are obvious and don't write them down, but often they are not.
Evidence: Someone may see data about problems customers are having and say, "We should fix this bug" without sharing the evidence. This can lead to readers making false assumptions about why they are performing a task and misprioritize it, or do the work in a way that does not address the underlying issue.
Opinions with reasons: A key way that communication can fail is by not explicitly saying what you think. Just stating facts without context leaves readers guessing about your conclusions from those facts and what you think is the best course of action.
Share information widely
Going back to the ever-present water cooler, information has a way of disseminating organically in an office. In a remote workplace, people can't walk around to get a feel for what is happening. On a remote team, people only see what others send them.
You should always encourage people to share things widely, even if the recipients don't have an immediate need to provide feedback. This helps everyone feel included and share knowledge that others may not know that they have.
Of course, not every person in the company needs to know every little detail, but in a remote workplace, people share information at one level higher than they would in an office – sending individual updates to the immediate team, team updates to the division or functional organization (e.g., the whole engineering team) and organization updates to the whole company.
Even though most people won’t read everything they see, broad sharing makes it easy for everyone to see what is going on at the company the same way that they would if they were in an office.
Collaborate with screen sharing
When tackling a difficult task, officemates will often sit down and work through it together. Collaborative spaces and white boards are popular in modern offices, yet these tools simply don’t exist in a remote workplace.
When people are remote, they tend to work independently and then share their results, rather than working side by side. The problem with this lack of close collaboration is that colleagues don't have the opportunity to share tips and tricks for working more effectively. If someone is approaching a problem in an inefficient way, others will see the result (a slow or incorrect solution) and be left to wonder what happened.
The secret of great teamwork is having people work together using screen sharing early on for more complex tasks, even if they have not yet run into problems or identified a specific need for help.
More experienced people have the opportunity to see what others are doing firsthand, and teach them about tools and techniques they are not aware of to improve their efficiency.
If two people are screen sharing and it's obvious that one person can complete the work on their own, it's easy to end the meeting. Companies have almost always had the opposite problem where people need help and struggle for too long on their own before reaching out.
With liberal use of screen sharing, a remote team can ensure that collaboration happens just as effectively as it does around an office white board.