Remote Collaboration for World Domination

Make great work with your team no matter where you are in the world.

If you’re part of a large te­am or global company then you’re likely collaborating across time and geography every day. Maybe the developers­ on your team are in a different country, your design lead travels frequently or your client is in another city. Regardless of your role or locatio­n you could be reviewing specs, testing prototypes, pitching ideas, coordinating meetings, or delivering a workshop at any point in your day. These collaborative efforts between colleagues, stakeholders, and customers are key to the success of any project. When it comes to delivering these tasks remotely, however, individuals can become separated or ‘siloed’ because of poor communication, cultural differences, and time constraints. I’ve been working with internationally dispersed teams for some years now and I wanted to reassure you that working remotely shouldn’t be a barrier for you and your team to co-create successfully. In fact, remote work offers up lots of unique opportunities for both the individuals and the organizations that embrace it!

Lots of companies advocate strongly for remote work. InVision and Automattic being two particularly good examples of this. And it makes perfect sense: allowing employees to work from anywhere in the world is not just good for recruitment but it’s a sure way to increase diversity in your organization. For startups or businesses that want to break into new markets, having a globally dispersed workforce is also a smart way to understand local trends and culture.

There are many benefits to remote collaboration but there are also challenges and considerations. If you’re new to this way of working, managing a global team, or if you’re considering a transition abroad and hoping to hold your current role, these tips (tried and tested) may prove useful to you and your team along the way.

1. Start by building relationships.

Good collaboration begins with trust. If you’re working alongside someone (even virtually) it’s important you get to know them. Make an effort to understand their strengths, weaknesses, personality, behaviours, and goals. Chatting about hobbies might sound unimportant in the context of business but when you’re not interacting with your teammates every other day over coffee or lunch, allowing time for this may be more beneficial than you think. People do their best work when they’re comfortable in their environment and trust their co-workers. So, get to know each other!

Pro-tip: Carve out an afternoon for your team to share something that is interesting or personal to them. Maybe it’s a hobby or side hustle that reflects what they like to do outside of work. This will help you gain a deeper level of empathy and understanding for your team. Lightning talks or lunch n’ learns are fun platforms for these types of activities. (Although traditionally held in-person, you can simply use video conferencing software if your team is remote).

2. Have an agenda and set some goals.

Time is precious. To get the best out of your remote session — whether it’s a call, a workshop, a review etc. — always have an agenda set in advance. Even a loose list of objectives will keep you on track and focused on what needs to get done. Above all, end your session with next steps or a to-do list to help clarify everyone’s responsibilities moving forward. I can’t stress how important this is when it comes to remote working. If you’re in a different time zone you may not have the opportunity to check in for another day or two (maybe longer), depending on schedules. Be sure that everyone is aligned and clear on their tasks and goals before the working day ends.

3. Tool up.

There are so many great digital tools available — lots for free — that enable teams to brainstorm, plan, or workshop in real-time. It might take a little extra time to learn these tools but that investment up front will increase productivity, communication, and transparency in the long run.

Some of my favourites:

Messaging platform for the workplace.

Virtual whiteboard. Perfect for design thinking activities and research synthesis.

Easy to use project management tool.

Google Docs and Box 
File sharing in the cloud.

Digital product design platform with prototyping tools and helpful resources.

For tracking your tasks and projects.

A dev platform that works for anyone. Track tasks, review code or manage projects.

A one-stop shop for discovering thousands of design resources and tools.

4. Put the phone down.

Too often remote collaboration takes the form of a conference call. Unless the situation warrants an over-the-phone conversation then you should avoid dialling in blindly. Body language is a huge part of how we communicate and is far more effective and meaningful than the words we use alone. Using real-time video services like Zoom, WebEx or Skype will help break down some of the linguistic or cultural barriers that might exist across your team.

Anyway, conference calls are notoriously unproductive…

5. Get off email.

I recently read that email occupies approx. 23% of the average employee’s workday, and that average employee checks his or her email 36 times an hour. Ugh! So while email may have been radically disruptive some decades ago, it can be more troublesome than useful today. Initially intended for long form written exchanges, we often choose (or misuse) email for instant messaging and collaboration. My advice when it comes to email is, when possible, reduce your inbox by using it to share sensitive or important information only. Instead, choose tools like Slack to stay connected with your colleagues. Messaging platforms like this allow you to have ongoing, short and informal conversations in real-time and on the go.

In the end, nothing can replace face-to-face interaction. Technology has revolutionized human communication for the better but digitization has also limited our capacity to truly empathise and connect with others. Yet, we shouldn’t view remote collaboration as a blocker to making successful work or building great relationships with our teammates.

At IBM, I’m fortunate to be able to work with people from all corners of the globe. Remote collaboration is not always a walk in the park but by establishing trust, having the right attitude, and using the appropriate tools I can assure you that your team will succeed together, no matter where you are in the world!

Lara Hanlon is a Designer in Residence at IBM Design, design thinking educator at IADT, explorer, and maker.