Staying Together While Working Apart

There is a great deal that newly remote teams can learn from teams that have worked remotely for several years. Here are some tips about how those experienced teams stay connected:
  • Manager 1:1s with team members
  • Online social hours
  • Online team development
  • Paired team conversations
  • Building a digital team home
  • Oscillating between virtual and in-person meetings
  • Effective online staff meetings

Manager 1:1s with team members

When working remotely, team members can become concerned that their manager may not know what they have been working on and what they have successfully achieved. They may fear that if they are out of sight they’ll be out of mind, because there is no way for them to casually mention an accomplishment during a hallway conversation or for a colleague to brag to the manager about what another team member has done.

Managers can feel equally in the dark, unaware that a team member might need information for a report, is being overwhelmed with requests, or that a project is falling behind schedule.

Here is how TechnipFMC deals with both of those issues. TechnipFMC’s Knowledge Management team of 12 members, is remote. The team is divided into three sub-teams, each with a program manager who is in a supervisory role. Program managers hold a weekly 1:1 with each person reporting to them. Luis, one of the program managers, explains, I always make sure we have cameras on. Taras in Russia smiles a lot, and it’s nice to see that. I smile back, and it helps with the human interactionIn the 1:1s, I typically ask questions to better understand the projects they’re working on and who the client is. I’m always trying to make connections with others doing something similar so I can connect them with that person. Luis sees his role as support rather than monitoring or assigning tasks, so he typically asks questions like, What can I do to make your job easier? or even What do I need to stop doing. In this time of the coronavirus, you could imagine him asking “How’s the family dealing with sheltering-in-place? or Have you got the equipment you need? He views the 1:1s as the time for team members to raise issues that are important to them. So team members often join the video meeting with a list of topics they want to discuss, everything from training they hope to take, to how they see their career path moving in the future.

Online Social hours

Many remote teams meet by video conferencing once a week, in an hour dedicated to connecting socially. The social hour mimics an on-site team’s having an office birthday cake, gathering for TGIF at a bar, or going to a football game together.

Social hours are one of a number of the rituals Atlassian, a software development company, has instituted to keep their remote team members connected. Take De Coninck as an example. She is an experienced designer who works remotely out of her home office in Melbourne, more than 500 miles away from Atlassian’s home office in Sydney. The office in Sidney has a life-size cutout of De and other remote workers that office staff occasionally move around to make it look like a remote worker is peeking from behind the office ferns or is at the watercooler. The whole team dials in for Friday evening social time where they can hang out, play video games or simply have a drink over a video call and bond. De notes, It just mimics that real office vibe. You can tell that they really wanted to make it work.

Social connections are a strong element in building collaboration within a team because collaboration depends on the relationships between team members. And relationships are built on trust, which is borne out of knowing each other beyond just the work team members do. Lita Kernery, who works on a ProQuest product development virtual team, says of her teammates, I like to know them personally. Do they have kids? Do we have something in common? It’s easier for me to talk with them about a work issue if I know something about them personally.

Online Team development

Every team benefits from having team development sessions to help the team collaborate more effectively, align around a shared purpose and improve the quality of work life. Although we typically think of team development as being an in-person retreat, it can be accomplished very successfully online. But if provided online, it is critical that the workshop follow some basic online principles for learning:

  • meetings are conducted in small groups of 4-6 team members, so there is airtime for everyone to talk. If a larger team is involved, it is divided into sub-groups for the development meetings.
  • meetings are spaced over time, for example, 90 minutes one day a week, or every two weeks. Being online all day just doesn’t work for anyone!
  • keeping the same small group together for each session to give them the time needed to build relationships.
  • applying the 80-20 rule to content, that is, 20% content and 80% group discussion that facilitates team members using the content in their own work.

The best virtual team development I’ve come across is CoachingOurselves. (Full disclosure: I am a Coaching Ourselves Associate) I use these modules in my teaching at Columbia University’s Information and Knowledge Strategy (IKNS) program to build collaboration before a group of students begins working together on a team project.

Paired team conversations

Paired calls between team members open the space to share their personal stories, for example, work history, schooling, hobbies, family. This foundation sets the stage for knowing each other beyond the surface-level and feeling more connected. However, team member participation should always be optional for paired calls, not mandatory.

Buffer is a fully distributed organization of 90 people living and working in 15 countries around the world. They create social media products for customers to build their brands. Buffer has been very intentional about studying how to build a culture that supports remote work. When Buffer discovered that team members were feeling a hunger for deeper connections, they began experimenting with a number of ways do to paired calls. After several tries, they settled on structured one-hour sessions held every other week. The calls are with a peer who works in another part of the organization. The peers keep the same partner for each call. Buffer workers say, I think it’s been really helpful to have a designated space to share and grow with another Bufferoo who isn’t my manager or someone on my team, and A great opportunity to connect with teammates and dive deeper into conversations that might not happen in a typical pair call.

There are lots of ways to do paired calls, the American Red Cross sets up “Randomized Coffee Trials.” Interested team members sign up, and each month are randomly assigned someone to have a short coffee break chat with. Then the next month they are assigned someone new. The idea is to give people a space to talk, and then to just see what happens. One Red Cross volunteer who participated said, Thank you for providing the opportunity to share and forge links with other volunteers worldwide. I had my first virtual coffee trial today and it was an awesome experience. Discussing our work and sharing our experiences just added the right flavor to what we do regardless of the distance. We are not alone. We have a voice. Thank you. Looking forward to the Second Round.  When I introduced the idea to Huawei in China, they opted for Randomized Tea Trials, so the idea is easily modified to fit different teams and cultures.

Building a digital team home

We all know the downsides of using email to communicate between team members – someone gets left out, misunderstandings occur, a team member learns about a change before others, responses have the wrong subject heading, on and on. Team collaboration apps like Slack, Twist, MS Teams or Yammer are one of the easiest ways for teams to stay together.

Team apps provide a space for everything that is going on in a team to be in one place. That includes project documents, requests for specific information, private messages between team members, messages directed to everyone, separate channels for different teams or projects, announcements, recordings of team meetings, and more. Team apps serve as a digital team home for a team, including social sections where team members can post family pictures and announcements. Doist is a fully remote team that produces productivity and communication apps. On Twist, Doist’s teamwork app, team members routinely post photos of their weekends and vacations, share news about weddings and babies, and chat about favorite books, films, and music. Parents at Doist even have a dedicated channel to discuss everything related to child rearing.

In team collaboration apps, team members can create robust profiles that include their skills, experience and current projects. Those profiles allow other team members to know who to turn to for answers to specific questions. There are useful add-ons to most collaboration apps, for example, Buffer uses an add-on to Slack, called HeyTaco. It lets teammates recognize the accomplishment of someone by giving them a taco. Each team member gets five tacos a day to distribute, and the accumulated tacos can be redeemed for rewards.

If a team app is new to team members or has only been used by a few team members in the past, new users will need some help. The organization’s technology group may have online training available or the team might identify power users on the team who are willing to provide quick help if they receive a message like, How do I set up a new channel?  or How do I send a private message?

Team apps are a great benefit to remote work, but only if everyone on the team uses the app, including the team manager. One way to ensure that everyone starts using the app is for the manager to let team members know, “I only respond to messages through the team app. If you send me an email I won’t see it.” That will do the trick! In some organizations, all internal communication takes place on the apps. Email is used only for exchanges with external clients and suppliers.

Effective online staff meetings

There is a lot to know about holding virtual meetings. I wrote a blog about it here. The guidelines are 1) use video conferencing with cameras on, 2) no PowerPoint or long presentations (nothing more than 5 min), meetings should be for discussion and connection among team members, 3) have frequent short meetings (30 to 90 min max) rather than long meetings, 4) elicit topics from the team about what they need to talk about before the meeting and put those topics on the agenda, 5) use breakout groups, polls, and chat functions to keep the meeting active and interesting, 6) start and end with a check in.

Oscillate between virtual and in-person meetings

My hope is that when things return to normal, many managers will have come to recognize the value of remote work so that many more organizations will offer employees the option of working one or more days a week remotely. If that happens, it is essential to remember that working remotely is not an all or nothing proposition. What works for teams that have been working remotely for a long while, is to oscillate between working remotely and coming together physically. That is the way the teams I have described in this blog, Buffer, Atlassian, Proquest, TechnipFMC and Doist work. I write more about that idea here.  And I explain how frequently a team needs to meet here.

Peter Block notes that an in-person group meeting has a symbolic significance, which he likens to a family at the dinner table. He explains It is when all of us are at the dinner table together that we get a sense of the whole. It is the moment we are physically reminded that we are part of something larger. The awareness of “being part of something larger” is critical to a group’s being willing to do the hard work of collective sensemaking. It is easy for organizational members to lose the sense of what others do and how what others do relates to what each member does – particularly in remote work. Without this understanding, it is difficult to take into account the needs of others.

Editor’s Note: This article republished with author’s permission – with first publication on LinkedIn.

Posted in: Communication Skills, Communications, KM, Meetings