What are the most effective remote working practices? Communication? Respect for others? Access to the best tools? Meeting the team on a regular basis? And are there any actual benefits to the team when some members work remotely?
I’ve been working in a remotely located team for over 3 years. From the start, my team had members that spanned across two countries. I feel that being setup this way from the beginning has made things a little easier for us. It’s potentially more demanding to retrofit a team that isn’t used to this way of working.
Part of my team is in Malaysia, while I work in Melbourne. This is our story about how we’ve made remote working, work for us…
Communication, Communication, Communication!
As with co-located teams, a remote team’s efficacy is dependant on the quality of its communication. Team success will only be achieved through successful communication. It may seem more difficult to communicate with team members in another country but it is surprisingly smooth if you make it one of the team’s core values.
We regularly remind each other that you can’t over-communicate. We use Slack daily to ask questions – preferably in a public forum so everyone can participate. If a relevant conversation happens in one location, we share outcomes to the broader team so they have access to this information. If communication starts to break down we immediately discuss how we can improve.
And we also use Zoom Video Conferencing for all our stand-ups and meetings. But it’s essential for everyone to understand how the software works — create clear instructions so you don’t spend the first 10 minutes of every meeting trying to get connected.
Team success will only be achieved through successful communication.
Face-to-face time is important
Travel often. At least every 3 months, I visit Malaysia, or someone from Malaysia comes to visit our Melbourne office. Use the time when you are in the same location to run workshops and other activities which get the whole team in the room together. Putting a personality to the faces behind the screen and developing a personal connection is immensely valuable from a teaming perspective. I always notice that we work much better together when we’ve recently spent time in the same location.
Jump on video chat often. Sometimes it seems easier to send an email or message, but next time you’ve got more than a few words to say, schedule a video chat instead. It will become a habit once you’ve done this a few times. Behave as if the remote team members are sitting next to you and start an ad-hoc video chat in the same way you would turn to the person sitting next to you to start up a conversation.
Putting a personality to the faces behind the screen and developing a personal connection is immensely valuable.
Working across different times zones means you’ll have less working hours to chat to some team members. Keep track of the times your remote colleagues are online and try to make yourself available during those times. I always try to unblock remotely located team members before leaving the office for the day, conscious they still have 2 or 3 working hours remaining.
All team members should set clear boundaries about when they are available though, or working longer hours can become a dangerous habit which can result in burnout.
Focus on team bonding and relationship building
Take time to be social, include out of work hours if someone’s visiting from overseas. When team members are in the same location plan team offsite activities, here are some we’ve used in the past:
- Escape room
- Celebration lunches/dinners for key milestones
- Playing board games
- Being a tour guide to show team members what’s unique to your country e.g. a trip to a wildlife sanctuary to visit kangaroos or to a local market in KL to try street food
Find ways to have fun using remote tools. Many ice breakers or games assume team members are in the same location but often these can be adapted with minor adjustments:
- Share photos of when you were children on a Trello board and have a guessing game of “Who’s that child?” during a retro.
- Have team members draw a caricature of another team member, scan it and upload it then have everyone guess who it is.
- Play a card game via video conference on a Friday afternoon e.g. a slightly adapted version of Coup.
These remote-adapted activities will likely be a bit awkward at first, but keep trying and you’ll find what works for you and have a blast.
Respect time differences and use them to your advantage
Here are a few simple rules our team tries to follow:
- Try not to send Slack messages out of work hours. Tip: Use reminders to send them when team members are in the office.
- Make it clear there is no expectation of a response to messages sent out of working hours except during emergencies.
- Don’t book meetings over lunch breaks.
- Use the time when your remote team members are not online to unblock them for when they are online e.g. do code reviews before they start for the day so they have feedback to action as soon as they sign in.
Adjust meeting formats so they work across countries e.g. retros using Trello or FunRetro, or digital whiteboard ideation UX sessions. And when you’re running these sessions, ensure team members on both sides have the opportunities to lead conversations.
Remember you are all one team working together towards a common goal. Use inclusive language like “Our team members in Malaysia” instead of “The Malaysian team”. Changing the terminology like this helps to foster a team spirit.
Remember you are all one team working together towards a common goal.
Be aware of cultural differences
Do your research, understand cultural differences between locations and team members. Be mindful of expectations, behaviours and language. For example, Australians love to shorten words and afternoon often becomes “arvo” which confuses many people from other cultural backgrounds.
Pay attention to working styles and adjust your interactions where appropriate. For example, does your team set expectations overtly, or are they assumed.
It’s really useful to have the whole team write down how they like to work with others. Are some people less assertive, or more conscientious than others? This diversity of thought is a real asset to any team and should be embraced.
Be mindful of expectations, behaviours and language.
Create a team vision upfront
Avoid costly delays, and conflict by proactively aligning the team with the same principles and values. The vision must be clear and highly visible to all team members. In addition, set clear expectations and directions to empower remote team members to remain productive during the hours when other team members might not be around to answer questions.
Who’s not in the room?
While remote working definitely has its challenges, I love it! The knowledge I’ve gained means I can now work productively and effectively anywhere. Our team’s diversity gives us more points of view on what’s best for our customers. Our time zone differences are another advantage — we’ll potentially spot any issues and respond to them more quickly than non-remote teams.
I also feel we’re better at communicating using digital tools and are less likely to forget to include someone in a conversation, just because they’re not physically in the same room.
Solid remote working processes depend on communication, and not just via video. Remember to be available, inclusive, and culturally mindful. Keep an eye on the clock, and have fun out there, wherever you are…