A Guide to Remote Teaming

June 1, 2017 in Notes from the Field
Derek Lasher
Senior Product Manager

After years of showing up daily to offices full of friends and colleagues, I find myself working remotely for the first time in my career. It’s not an uncommon situation – more and more, employers are granting their teams the option to work from home, coffee shops, or distant time zones. While there are certainly advantages around flexibility, there are a ton of things that are effortless for co-located teams that can be major challenges when you’re in separate states. The following list describes some of the tactics I’ve found useful for managing the distance.

1. Exaggerate communication

Working together in the same space makes it easy to feel looped into your teammates’ work. You overhear phone calls, you get stopped to review work-in-progress on your way to the printer. It’s easy to feel on top of everything by simple osmosis.

But when the team is distributed, or especially when there’s a single remote collaborator (like me), a concerted effort is required to ensure that the distance isn’t hindering the team’s abilities. An important first step is to schedule frequent check-ins to dig into the little missed conversations that accumulate when the barriers to easy conversation are higher. Make sure these meetings are frequent and prioritized—they’re important and help foster a sense of connection throughout the team.

Once that backstop is in place, focus on over-communicating as the project progresses. Designate a scribe or secretary during meetings to take notes for the group and share them with everyone afterwards. Catch everyone up on any informal conversations that have happened around the office as they relate to the work.

Yes, all of this is a little extra work, but it spells the difference between a team that feels connected and able to do great work together and a team that doesn’t.

2. Establish a hierarchy of communication channels

At work we use email, slack, texts, calls, video chats, and other channels to talk with each other, and one mode shouldn’t be chosen over another arbitrarily. Each excels at something and is completely inappropriate for others. Don’t be the person that leaves urgent information buried in a Google Doc comment. Decide ahead of time as a group what channels are best for what and the level of urgency or reasonable response time assigned to each.

Here’s the hierarchy we use at MAYA from least urgent to most:

Google Doc comment → email → Slack @reply → text message → phone call

(Some of these internal channels, like phone calls, are largely a thing of the past in the modern workplace, but with remote workers, it’s useful to put them back on the list).

Once you’ve all agreed, it’s important to choose the correct channel for the information at hand. Don’t cry wolf by giving too many frequent updates, or people will stop responding to your texts quickly.

3. Develop good visibility habits

Find ways to let your team know when you’re available and when you’re not. In an office, it’s obvious when someone’s at their desk with headphones on, when they look interruptible, and when they’re headed out for a walking one-on-one, but all of this ‘metadata’ is unavailable to a remote worker who’s just left wondering why they haven’t gotten a response on the chat they sent an hour ago. We certainly shouldn’t expect everyone to be available at all times, but it’s reasonable to know when we can count on a quick response and when we can’t.

Similarly, put work (finished and unfinished) in public places so that the team can answer their own questions, especially around the status of open work. This means using multi-tenant software whenever possible (Google Docs, etc.) or saving versions to a shared drive often if you’re using locally hosted programs.

It’s also very helpful to have a shared dashboard that everyone updates as their work progresses. Exposing this information and ensuring that it’s meticulously kept up-to-date alleviates a lot of stress, especially if there are interdependencies in the work (and when aren’t there?).

4. Try leveling the playing field between local and remote

It can be isolating when you can’t see or hear what’s happening on a video call. It’s important for the local team to make sure remote teammates are equipped with the right tools and settings to be fully engaged.

Counter-intuitively, it’ll often make meetings run more smoothly to artificially handicap any team members who are co-located. Make everyone log into the video call separately so that the meeting is happening there, rather than in the room while the remote teammate’s isolation is highlighted. It can be tough to feel like an active participant in a meeting when there’s a lot of the discussion happening off-camera. It’s even challenging in three-person meetings—I can’t tell you how many video calls I’ve been on where I’m looking at the wall between the other two people and their shoulders.

Remote work can be a boon for everyone involved, but in order to work well, it requires a little extra effort. The most important thing is to ensure everyone feels comfortable discussing what’s working and what isn’t so the team can define and refine the boundaries and allowances needed to keep everything running smoothly.

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