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Working Remotely as a Team

by Josh Burnett
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Published on March 19, 2020

During the first days of sending employees home to work remotely to help fight the spread of the COVID-19 virus, many organizations faced significant logistical challenges with simply getting people online in their homes. 

Stories from Reddit and Spiceworks are downright heroic. IT teams were tasked with modifying their entire infrastructure to support remote work overnight — literally. For some it was just a matter of keeping track of the equipment leaving the building, setting up MFA, and supporting a few hundred extra VPN connections. In other cases, IT teams had to quickly purchase and configure laptops for their entire company. 

As herculean a task as that may seem, getting a team online is merely the baseline. Now that they're online, potentially for weeks or longer, there are other considerations from a leadership perspective. The biggest consideration: how to keep the same dynamics in a remote work environment that made your team successful face-to-face. 

Managing a remote team is fundamentally the same as leading a team face-to-face, but there are some differences. On an individual basis, transitioning to working outside of the office might not be that difficult — and even welcomed. But when it comes to teams, going fully remote can be quite a transition. 

How will team members who are used to being on-site adjust to working remotely? Do team leads change their communication style? What happens to team culture?

Luckily, teams that have worked together are better positioned for business as usual than fully remote teams for a couple of reasons: 

Everyone already knows each other IRL. Now-remote team members already have a strong rapport from working in the same office.  In some ways, it's easier to replicate those relationships online while everyone is remote. 

Collaboration channels have been established. Similarly, people who have been working on-site for a while already have their typical routines — meetings, calls, and their interpersonal relationships. It's easy enough to move these online. What's missing is the extemporaneous interactions. The watercooler chat, if you will. But if your team is set up with G Suite, Teams, Slack, or another collaboration suite, then it's still probably business as usual.

Even with these benefits, there are still challenges to managing a team that's been suddenly dispersed across a city. Here's how you and your team can make a successful transition to working remotely. 

Proactively Shaping Your Role as a Lead

Due to the suddenness of the COVID-19 pandemic, many teams are being forced to go fully remote for the first time. This means nearly every team member is working from a different location. 

In a fully remote environment, individual communication oversights are less common than within teams that have a hybrid of onsite and remote team members. Because everything must be communicated virtually to each employee, communication tends to be more consistent. The flip side, however, is that it can be more challenging to foster a strong team environment when team members are scattered across different locations.

If you're a manager or a team leader, there are a few ways to approach these challenges:

Establish clear expectations and requirements. If someone needs to be on-call certain days of the week, or available to take calls during certain hours, clearly outline this at the beginning of the working relationship. Put this in writing — and reference it frequently to help reinforce expectations and procedures.

Note that it's just as important that managers or leads hold themselves to these specifications. If a coworker or direct report fails to get their lead something in time, but is still operating within the constraints their lead laid out, it's the lead's fault for not communicating any exception-based requirements — not theirs. 

Set deadlines, track them in a collaborative space, and follow up. Capable teams work as a finely-tuned, intermeshed set of gears, each one supporting the next. Keeping overall project timelines is virtually impossible without a high level of accountability at the individual contributor level. 

To set your team up for success while working remotely, establish clear and reasonable deadlines, track them where everyone who needs to know can see them, and enforce them. Missed timelines often set off a cascading series of adverse reactions, so avoid this as much as possible. Make sure to communicate changes as soon as possible. 

Maintaining team culture. Let's be honest, team members are likely experiencing a lot of emotions due to the pandemic, including fear and frustration. Even those who are used to working remotely are facing disruptions to their normal day-to-day lives. That makes maintaining team culture even more important.

Make sure to celebrate team successes during challenging times. Go beyond email or Slack messages.  Schedule virtual get-togethers to recognize birthdays and other important milestones.  

It's easy to take the benefits colocation provides for granted: all the casual interactions and nonverbal cues you pick up on when sitting next to someone are much harder to come by when you're geographically separated.

Knowing how your team members are doing personally is critical to helping them perform at their best — even during uncertain times.

Maintaining High-Level Performance

The abrupt nature of the COVID-19 pandemic has left companies scrambling to adjust. Not surprisingly, communication is key to transitioning to working remotely

Ask your coworkers what they need from you. Knowing how they want you to convey project requirements and deadlines or when it's best to have an in-depth discussion is a direct investment in a high-performing working relationship. 

Let them know you're there. Let them know you want to help, and find out what you can do to support them. Sometimes this is little stuff ("When you send me project updates via email, can you tag it with #XYZ in the subject line?"), and occasionally it can be significant ("Hey man, my grandmother died last night — can you help me finish this milestone?"). Your overall philosophy should be modeled after the golden rule: are you the kind of employee you'd want as a coworker?

If possible, use the same tools. Make use of tools that can help teams stay on the same page and on track. For overall project management, consider collaborative tools such as Asana or Trello. Casual team communication is rarely served best by email, so think about investing in a messaging system like Fleep or Slack. Know the pros and cons of various video-conferencing platforms. For example, Zoom is HIPAA-approved, while Skype isn't. 

Think through tools that will allow you to draft and edit products collectively, such as Google Drive or DropBox. Do you need a single email provider, or can your team have a mix of corporate and web-based email domains?

If most of your team is on-site with a few remote collaborators, is your conference room set up for multiple remote attendees who may need to share their screens? Are you tracking meetings so off-site personnel know which ones they're required to attend and which they can ignore?

Keeping everyone on the same page (literally and figuratively) is the foundation for developing effective teams. 

Final Thoughts

At the end of the day, fostering a high-performing remote team isn't easier or harder than doing so in-person — it's just different. Planning ahead, communicating effectively, and ensuring that everyone is treated equally, regardless of location, are all critical factors. 

Communication is crucial to a team's success — never more so than when team members are forced to work remotely on a whim. If your organization and team is preparing to move operations remotely, make sure everyone is on the same page.


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