Tips for establishing a successful remote working culture for collaborative teams
Directors and managers, this one’s for you too.
At the time I started working at my company on a web development team, most of us worked on campus and just a few team members were working remotely full time. All of the full-time remote team members were developers and while they collaborated with other team members often they mostly worked independently and had minimal interaction with clients. Project managers met almost daily with clients in conference rooms face to face. Our support team members hosted in person support ‘office hours’ in our building’s lobby. But hey, the team had just moved from offices to a new open office floor plan and that was kind of a big deal.
Fast forward two years later and now one third of our team is working remotely full time and almost everyone working on campus telecommutes at least one to two times a week. Commutes are twice as long as they used to be in the Bay Area, outrageous housing costs and the quest for being a first-time home owner have driven others to live farther away, and developers are no longer the only ones on the big screen anymore. We have project managers and designers working remotely too! The team’s office hours are remote friendly for customers too, so they can join from their own desk instead of walking over to our building for what may end up being only a 15 minute support question.
So how does this remote culture shift happen, what tools do you need to support it, and how can you convince your company’s leadership that even client facing team members — like project managers — can work remotely too? Below are some tips for implementing and establishing a successful remote working culture.
Make it available to everyone
Working from home should not be treated as special treatment or accommodation. This creates a negative stigma around working remotely and resentment for those that do. If everyone on the team has a chance to try it, it won’t feel like a secret or treat that gets taken advantage of when they finally get to work from home.
Be on camera, Video is required
I can’t stress this one enough. Video allows you to stay engaged and see each other’s facial expressions. Something as simple as nodding to show agreement and raising your hand to cue when someone else is trying to speak creates a similar in person meeting flow. Our team also practices calling on the next person to speak to avoid the awkward silence moments and keep the conversation moving.
Conference rooms should have mounted tv screens with web cameras. Bonus points if the camera is also positioned across from a whiteboard wall for live sketch sessions. And for the rooms that aren’t video conference ready — you can encourage everyone in the room to call in from their laptops with their video on. Just be sure to maintain a single audio source to avoid feedback loops.
Also, try to avoid placing one laptop at the end of the conference table and point it toward the room. Those on the other end can’t hear or see you anyways and those in the room forget about the computer (and anyone calling in on it) once they’re all turned to face each other.
note: I will have another article soon specific to tools and tips for video conferencing, I could talk about this topic for days!
Operate as normal. They are still working and so are you.
Adopt video conferencing in all of your regular meetings
Even if you don’t have remote team members in your meeting, start requiring video conference options for all of your meetings. What if someone is unexpectedly working from home to take care of a sick child or calling in late from another meeting across campus? Having the conference link available to join at a moment’s notice will keep your meeting time on track and remote team members can easily drop in if they need to.
Eventually the team should learn to use the conferencing tools to share their screen instead of plugging in to the tv monitor with the HDMI cable (which never seems to work anyways). This way anyone joining the call can see what’s being shared and not just those in the room.
Don’t avoid scheduling meetings, even important ones, just because someone is working from home that day
Operate as normal. They are still working and so are you.
Host morning check-ins
Daily stand ups aren’t just for agile teams. You are most likely already practicing this in the office, but you can still use this technique to set priorities and kickoff the day for everyone both on and off site. It can also help managers have visibility with their distributed team and remember who is working from where each day.
Teams should be able to create best practices and a working culture that is unique and works best for them.
Create a team remote working agreement
Decide the baseline expectations for how everyone will work together. Create this document together in a fun team bonding workshop. Discuss and decide things like:
- What tools will you use to communicate such as Slack or Jabber?
- Always send meeting invites with a conference link.
- If a conversation in Slack has more than 20 replies to a problem or question, jump on a call together to hash it out.
- What are the escalation paths if you really need to get ahold of someone for urgent issues?
- Do you need to notify managers of the days you will be working from home or will it be more flexible?
- Do you have a company-wide policy about telecommuting or working remotely? If so, make sure it is clearly documented and communicated to all employees.
You may have policies from HR but teams should be able to create best practices and a working culture that is unique and works best for them.
Schedule co-working sessions
We call it “Morning of Awesome”. Every Friday morning, our team — sometimes all 20 of us— will call in once a week from wherever we are and just hang out while we work together (on separate projects or tasks). As our team grows larger, we found this co-working time to also be effective for quick demos of our work. It’s more of a show-and-tell than an official design or code review so the atmosphere remains casual and fun. This also keeps the team culture strong and provides the remoties a chance to connect with someone other than their pet for the first time that day. “Morning of Awesome” has quickly become the highlight of my weekly meetings on my calendar.
For those of you with jaws dropped, eyes rolling, and wondering, “How could you possibly get anything done while everyone is talking and hanging out on the same call?” — It’s only a couple of hours a week and really not that different from being in an open office environment listening to other conversations while trying to work. Plus it’s optional, so if you really need heads down time you can opt out that week, but you will be missed by the team.
Have as much visibility as if you were in the office
Do you say hello to your team when you walk by their desks in the morning to let them know you’re in the office after your 1.5hr commute? Drop a good morning message in Slack to let your team know when you’re up and running from home. Some people even let us know when they’ve stepped away from their keyboards for lunch or when they are signing off for the day but it’s not a hard and fast rule.
Don’t expect your remote employees to work late or be available early
They are home. They are not always working. Don’t punish them just for working 8 hours in yoga pants.
ps. I still get dressed in real outfits everyday just as if I were going into the office. I take myself a little more seriously presenting to clients when I’m wearing real pants.
When you solve a problem for a remote employee, you often solve it for everyone.
Reality check — can you actually do your job remotely?
Unless your job is running physical cables through crawl spaces or saving human lives doing open heart surgery, chances are if it’s an office job sitting at a computer from 9–5, even one that requires answering phone calls and interfacing with clients, this can be remote work too. You just have to be willing to try and make it work for your team. What feels hard to adjust to in the beginning will normalize as your team improves processes and documentation. You might even find tools that make certain tasks easier and more productive. When you solve a problem for a remote employee, you often solve it for everyone.
If you’ve tried all of the above and your company still isn’t open to remote working, guess what?
Providing flexible work styles is another great benefit many companies are adopting in order to compete and retain talent. Remote working is the future of work, so your company may appreciate your ability to help implement change and increase retention for your team.