Communication in growing teams is difficult in itself, but it becomes even more complicated when everyone is not in the same physical space.
At Trello, most of us work remotely- the split is about 70% remote and 30% in offices. The same is true of my team of sixteen- ten are remote, and six work from offices. Remote work offers so many advantages that it’s a moot point to extol its virtues here, but you do have to think about managing people a little bit differently. What I’ve learned as a manager is that people need to feel connection in three distinct ways in order to function at the highest level. This is probably true in an office setting, but most likely happens more organically. In a remote setting, I’ve found it’s important for managers to make sure these three areas are in good shape with every team member.
Connection With Manager
In my experience, one of the most important connection points is the one people have with their manager. Remote workers can feel isolated a lot more quickly than those in offices. Isolation leads to unhappiness, and unhappiness can be endemic. If issues are not addressed, they can more easily be swept under the rug only to balloon later on. The first line of combat is for the manager to always have a pulse on the remote worker’s emotional well being. The relationship needs to be such that workers feel comfortable coming to their manager when something happens, or they are blocked on a project.
The relationship between manager and remote worker needs to be cultivated both formally and informally. The natural formal process is the regular one-on one-meeting, but tools like Slack, Trello, and Zoom make talking about issues as they come up more plausible.
One of my favorite expressions about dealing with non verbal communication is to escalate the medium, not the message.
This means that a worker should feel comfortable talking to their manager about an issue in video or on the phone if something is unclear or unfavorable over chat. Putting this principle into practice will alleviate so many issues, I can’t even begin to describe how powerful yet simple this wonderful magic can be.
Besides the one-on-one meeting, the manager needs to make sure their direct feels supported, informed, and able to be themselves at work.
Connection With Team
In order for remote workers to feel empowered and aligned on goals, they must feel a strong connection their team. I’m not going to define team here, since it can include lots of different combinations of people, so you can interpret it as you will. The most important thing to consider is that this connection fosters the sense of purpose that is necessary for empowered work, excitement, energy and combating loneliness.
How do you make this happen? Well in an in person office system, team identity is established through shared projects, goals, outings, celebrations, and the day to day reality of working together. Guess what? The same is true in a remote team! The only difference is that rather than in person meetings, they’ll happen over Zoom (or whatever you use for video calls), rather than water cooler chatter happening in the hallway it’ll happen over Slack (think plenty of GIFs) and celebrations and outings can happen at team offsites.
One of the most important things to consider is that everyone needs to feel responsible for fostering the team culture and connection, which means anyone should feel empowered to suggest or make change themselves. For example, on my team, early on there was meeting fatigue — not surprising since this is an issue that plagues most teams, regardless of where or what they’re doing. To combat this, we decided as a team to designate “Maker Days.” Maker Days mean time can be blocked off in anyone’s shared Google Calendar and there is a team understanding not to schedule those days with meetings. This gives makers undisturbed focus time to get in flow states- whether that is writing, researching, designing, writing code, etc. You can read more about how we did this here.
Another “team” to consider is the overall company. Battling communication silos also happens with remote teams, and fostering a connection to the overall company is important to make sure collaboration is happening cross functionally, or across departments. Companies (whether startups, non-profits, or larger companies) need to address this by having regular cadences of communication and culture sharing that remind workers of their shared goals. We do this via a monthly Town Hall in Zoom, but I’ve known other companies that send email updates out on a weekly basis or have daily standups.
Connection With Self
This one may not seem as obvious, but it’s really, really, really, really (OK you get the point) important for remote workers to be extremely self aware when it comes to their own work environments, mental states, and preferences. One of the most glorious things about remote work is being able to control your environment. Rather than having to suffer through listening to Nancy tap her pen all day, or Jim’s annoying gum chewing, remote workers can set up standing or walking desks, design their offices with succulents galore, and plan outings to make sure they don’t get too lonely.
I always tell people that you wouldn’t show up at a company office and expect it to be an empty shell with desks or conference rooms. The same is true with remote work: you need to put thought and strategy into your remote working structure to make sure both your environment and your schedule address your productivity.
For example, I am most productive in the morning. Therefore, I try to tackle my hardest, most strategic work within the first part of my day. Afternoons can be spent in meetings or doing administrative work that doesn’t require the amazing focus I’m able to have in the mornings. Another example is that if I don’t leave the house every day, I go crazy.
I’ve learned to plan something outside the house- whether it’s a coffee meeting, workout class, or simply taking my son to the park every single day. Now, I live in Chicago where the winters can be long, dark and brutal. But having worked remotely for years, I know I need to stick to this rule to be my most happy self.
Encourage your remote workers to do some introspection, or even experiment with different working patterns or schedules to reach their optimal level of productivity, happiness, and connection.