15 Tips for Remote Collaboration
Time travel with me back to 2003, and discover the through-line.
Don’t call them “meetings.” One of the most effective ways to get through a research project together is to make each session together a working session. Aim for no homework. Get stuff done during the time you are with each other.
Note: This post was written before cloud software and Zoom. Please substitute modern software 5 and 6 below. This post was originally published at Adaptive Path.
Eight weeks ago I broke my leg while running. After five days in the
hospital, surgery, a titanium rod, and several painkillers, I found
myself conducting all of my business remotely. On the upside, working
from my couch has given me an opportunity to hone techniques for working
with remote teams.
It will always be easier to rally a group of people who work in the same
building, but you can accomplish just as much (or more) with a motivated
remote team. Getting team members motivated in the first place and
holding their interest are your goals. Here are fifteen quick and useful
tips to get you started.
1. Get ready.
The first rule in working with remote teams is to respect everyone’s
time. When the team is gathered — whether remotely or face-to-face — use every minute wisely. Gather data, make analyses, and draft documents and diagrams in advance. This preparation will jump-start discussions and provide structure for the meeting. Emphasize that all team members should complete their assigned tasks beforehand.
2. Use meeting time to work.
Use your time together to get on the same page, brainstorm ideas, and
make decisions. Finalize draft documents. Edit diagrams and draw
pictures. The goal is to have no homework after the meeting. That means
the group should make all decisions and update all documents by the time
you leave. Use templates to make documents consistent and compliant with
3. Don’t call them “meetings.”
When someone says “meeting” it conjures images of wasted hours listening
to semi-relevant facts. You’re not here to present, you’re here to work.
Call “meetings” by some other name. The name I use is “working session.”
Choosing a new term will help put everyone in the right mindset and will
emphasize the collaborative nature of your sessions.
4. Have decision makers present.
Everyone at the meeting should be empowered as a decision maker. Saying,
“Well, I’ll have to check with Marcy on that” only prolongs the project
and derails the meeting. Make final decisions in the meeting and record
5. Show the documents as they change.
If there are multiple people in one room, use a projector so the entire
team can see the documents. For those who are dialed in, use remote
software to display the documents live. WebEx or NetMeeting are good
examples. I can “share” a Visio diagram with the whole team, and
together we can move elements around on the screen.
If there is no diagram to manipulate, show the meeting notes or issues
log. Use software to attract people’s eyes to the screen and involve
them in discussion. Pass control of the document from person to person,
6. Use the right software.
Remember as you prepare for your working sessions: PowerPoint is for
executives and classrooms; working documents are for project teams. A
PowerPoint presentation summarizes work you’ve already done, or explains
work you plan to do. Working sessions are about finishing tasks. Use
Excel spreadsheets, Word documents, Visio diagrams, and whatever other
software you use to make deliverables.
7. Give yourself time to accomplish your goals.
I schedule three-hour working sessions. Yes, three hours. (Often
longer!) I’ve found that it takes this long to wade through the details
and discussion necessary to make decisions. Set up recurring meetings
for the duration of the project several times a week.
Map out goals for your working session at the beginning so everyone
knows what you hope to accomplish. Allow team members enough time to
prepare their work between sessions.
8. Take structured breaks.
We are chained to our biology. Since working sessions will be long, you
must schedule breaks. Set up rules for these breaks so they don’t
stretch from five minutes into forty-five minutes. Tell team members to
refrain from checking email or voicemail.
Also, supply food and verify that remote locations will have snacks
available as well. Food helps bring team members to the table and
maintains their energy level. If your working session runs over lunch,
arrange for take-out.
9. Encourage participation.
Conference calls can lead to daydreaming, so establish ground rules for
active listening. To encourage team members to participate with
questions, opinions, or new ideas, tell everyone, “Silence is assent. If
you’re quiet, everyone will assume that you agree with everything that’s
being said.” Reward participation by verbally acknowledging
10. Convey facial expressions verbally.
Since body language isn’t discernible over the phone, routinely talk
about facial expressions. During one working session, I was on the phone
with five team members in New Jersey and one in Wisconsin. The project
leader interrupted with, “Indi, we have a lot of puzzled expressions
around the table.” We were able to back up to the last point we were
discussing and readdress it.
11. Give everyone a session assignment.
Another way to encourage active participation is to assign roles to
different people on the conference line. Ask one person to keep the
schedule and remind everyone of break times. Ask another person to log
issues that come up, and another to take meeting notes. Ask topic
experts to record decisions that relate to their area of expertise.
12. Respect time zones.
If you’re working with a team that spans time zones, especially
international zones, be considerate and rotate meeting times. If it’s 2
p.m. in California, it’s 11 p.m. in parts of Germany and 6 a.m. in
Singapore. The next working session should be scheduled for 6 a.m. in
the U.S., giving team members in Germany the 2 p.m. slot. Keep rotating
the time so that no one group feels particularly put upon.
13. Don’t ignore office politics.
Politics can be devastating to a project, so address them head on. At
the kickoff meeting, ask everyone on the team to lay their delicate
issues on the table without commenting on other people’s agendas.
Encourage honesty, respect, and humor. Ask for creative ways to express
blunt truths. Someone whose boss is a micromanager might say, “I lose
time defending my decisions to my manager too often.”
Once you know about the group politics, look for opportunities to use
the dynamic to your advantage. For example, the person who believes the
team is doomed to fail should be responsible for your risk-management
plan. Who better?
14. Be liberal with praise.
When reporting team progress to other groups, be sure to praise
individual contributors on the team. People want to be proud of the work
they’ve accomplished and everyone can use a little positive attention.
15. Designate a “higher being.”
A project sponsor who is at a high enough level in the organization that
everyone on the team reports to him or her is a useful asset. Your
project sponsor will be the person to whom the team reports progress,
and he or she should be able to break stalemates. Alternately, a clear
goal or measurable return on investment can also act as inspiration for
From the Sofa
After I broke my leg, one of my first thoughts as I lay face-down on the
trail was, “I won’t be able to start work with my new client tomorrow!”
Luckily, when I called the client from the hospital bed, she was
sympathetic and encouraging. Her team was well versed in working
remotely, and they were happy to try an engagement with me without
having ever met me in person.
Don’t let lack of experience deter you and your team from working
remotely. By using these techniques, you can overcome lack of interest,
slow progress, and inability to visualize. Share these ideas with your
team, and help guarantee participation and a timely conclusion.