From a technological standpoint, it’s never been easier to work remotely — portable devices and 24/7 internet access mean your office can go anywhere, and you can source the best talent from around the world. However, despite the proliferation of apps and tools like Slack, Google Docs, and Skype, teams still struggle to collaborate. As the managing director of NOBL UK, I’ve had more and more clients ask how to foster a great remote culture. To successfully transform from an in-person, 9-5 workplace to a nationwide (or even global) high-performing remote team, you need to implement a new set of skills and rituals, not just apps.
The pros and cons of remote work
Companies have been suspicious of remote working and its impact on company culture — it was just six years ago that Marissa Mayer famously banned remote working at Yahoo. Concerns have ranged from questions about the overall effect on culture and productivity to whether or not their people are really “working” remotely. But the evidence is mixed: a controlled study at a Chinese call centre found that remote workers were not only 13.5 percent more productive, they were 50 percent less likely to quit and more satisfied with their jobs. Meanwhile, a survey of 2,000 remote workers found that nearly two-thirds of them aren’t engaged.
Despite these mixed results, the trend shows no sign of slowing down. In the last 10 years, remote workers have increased by 115 percent, and a study of HR professionals found that 58 percent thought work flexibility was the best way to attract talent.
The challenges facing virtual teams
Clearly, virtual teams do face real challenges which can impact productivity and engagement.
First, virtual teams experience more task conflict and less cooperation. Think of all the regular check-ins and informal conversations that you have with colleagues in the physical workplace. These provide multiple opportunities to share information and adjust the work, increasing alignment over time. The remote worker doesn’t have this same cadence of continuous feedback, which makes it harder for teams to align.
To compensate for these informal interactions, remote workers often rely on online interactions, such as texting or using a chat platform like Slack. Unfortunately, these interactions tend to be shorter in length, have a quicker pace, and generate ambiguity, which can lead to increased miscommunication.
Even no communication can lead to miscommunication. Silence (for example, waiting for someone to respond) is all too easy for virtual team members to misinterpret and can lead to interpersonal problems that are difficult to resolve.
How to create a high-performing remote team
Fortunately, there are a few ways that you can improve how you work together as a remote team.
Find the right people for remote work
While many people love the idea of remote work, feeling disengaged from the rest of the team is a real concern. So when hiring people for remote positions, make sure they’re aware of the challenges and able to adapt. Zapier has found that the characteristics of a good remote worker include excellent written communication skills, a bias towards action, and a strong ability to prioritise. In addition, they should already have a built-in support system, so they don’t feel so alone. Buffer, for instance, provides every worker with a stipend to work out of a coworking space or coffee shop for those who want more social interaction.
Set the team up for success
The most critical thing you can do for remote teams is to establish clear communication norms and information sharing rules upfront — with an emphasis on upfront. At the beginning of a project, people are just learning each other’s working styles and establishing expectations. Instead of hoping that people will learn and adapt to each other over the course of the project, put the work in upfront. Build in more time for communication and emphasise deadlines early in the project, and dedicate time to teaching new members about your team’s existing culture. At Percolate, they’ve actually flown in remote hires to their New York headquarters to create a better onboarding experience.
Earn trust over time
Often, we’ll see new remote teams jump into assignments, assuming that trust will be built along the way. While an optimistic outlook is helpful, it’s not enough: actively encourage the team to bond and form relationships. One simple way to do this is to pair up team members to work together on a given project, or even just to catch up casually. Culture Amp, for instance, uses the Slackbot “Donut” to connect two team members for a virtual coffee (plus, they gave each pair $10 for actual coffee!).
Digital tools can also be used to help people feel more connected on a project basis. Aside from ongoing open chats, we’ve seen some teams be more inclusive by instituting a rule that as long as one person is video conferencing into a meeting, everyone in the meeting should video conference in on their own computers. This gives everyone equal footing and makes remote workers less likely to feel that they’re being ignored or shut out by their in-office colleagues.
Learn to dynamically adjust
Once teams have established a baseline of trust, they should progress to mutual understanding — that is, individuals that continually synchronise and modify their behaviour to adjust to others. One simple way to encourage this behaviour is to have everyone fill out user manuals: a simple questionnaire that asks people about their own work styles, like how they disagree, or when and how they need help.
It’s also helpful to keep up the dialogue about availability and workload in real time as it affects the project. Not just reassurances and accountability, the idea is to give people a view into your world. In particular, practice clarity around deadlines. It’s important to give people a clear view of your timelines, so they understand the urgency but also have a chance to feel heard.
Improve your ability to anticipate team members’ future behaviour
Lastly, seek out opportunities to better learn how colleagues think and solve problems. One fun way to do this is to play a complex game together so you can get to know each other’s thinking styles while sharing areas of knowledge. (We’re fans of Spaceteam, but any major team building game that includes individuals’ unique areas of knowledge will work.) Alternately, or in addition, you can do a team charter together, in which you define your team’s customers and purpose in order to align on the best strategies, structures, and systems to achieve those outcomes.
Tools are just the beginning
As you’ve seen in these examples, technology has provided a myriad of opportunities for teams to better connect, but without a unified understanding on how and when they should be used, as well as the greater purpose behind those tools, teams will continue to flounder. Taking the time to establish norms and build trust at the beginning of any relationship – remote or not – will pay dividends at the end.