Turn “Them” into “Us:” How to Make Remote Workers Part of the Team

Five Ways to Forge a United Team.

Teresa Douglas
Nov 30, 2019 · 6 min read
Photo by Fauxels courtesy of Pexels.com

Henry Ford once said, “If everyone is moving forward together, then success takes care of itself.” Whether or not you agree with Mr. Ford, team performance can make or break a company. According to Scott Keller and Mary Meaney of McKinsey,” there is a 1.9 times increased likelihood of having above-median financial performance when the top team is working together toward a common vision.”

Creating and developing high-performance teams has always been part art, part science. And recent technological advances add an additional layer of complexity to the team-building process. Thanks to cloud-based servers and high-speed internet, some (or all) of your direct reports might live in different times zones and never meet each other in person. Their workdays might not overlap for more than a few hours.

Even with these constraints, it’s possible to build high-functioning teams. This is good news for leaders, as knowledge work becomes increasingly office-optional. A recent Owl Labs report surveyed 1,202 US-based workers and found that 62% of them, work away from the office at least some of the time. According to Global Workplace Analytics, the number of employees working from home has grown by 159% since 2005. If you aren’t managing a fully remote or hybrid workforce now, you’re likely to do so in the near future.

I’ve been part of many different teams since going remote in 2010. Some of those teams were fully remote, while others were a hybrid of co-located distributed employees. The most effective of those teams shared some common variables.

Everyone Knows Their Role

All team members need to understand who is responsible for various tasks within the team. Task transparency is especially crucial for hybrid teams. You don’t want your in-office employees wondering what remote worker Sally does all day. You also don’t want Sally feeling resentful because her in-office colleagues make decisions without her input. That sort of task ambiguity can create an ‘us vs. them’ mindset that’s poison to effective teams.

On my current team, many different people interact with our part-time faculty. It could be chaotic, but it isn’t. We’re clear about who processes a teacher’s payroll, who determines her schedule, and who finds the venue for her to teach in. We don’t have to spend time figuring out who should handle these areas of responsibility. Instead, we can focus on getting our teachers what they need to deliver an excellent student experience.

The Team “Sees” Each Other in Action

Assigning explicit responsibilities is a good first step, but not sufficient. Your people also need to see each other in action. Teams work best when members trust each other to produce quality work on time.

Remote work gives you the opportunity to demonstrate that capability in hyper-efficient ways. If everyone works inside the same office, there’s a tendency to round everyone up and hold a meeting to exchange information. Unfortunately, meetings aren’t always the best way to dispense information — how many times have you left a meeting thinking ‘why didn’t someone just put that in an email?’

While we want our teams to bond, they should bond over shared work and values, not because they hate your meetings.

A good manager finds a better way.

High Performing Teams Collaborate Asynchronously

The truth is, asynchronous collaboration is good for everyone. When you make use of these resources, your remote employees will feel integrated into the team, and your in-office employees will have fewer interruptions.

Project Management Boards

Sometimes we call a meeting when what we really need is a project management board My team uses Trello to keep track of tasks that affect multiple members of the team. I don’t need to jump into a meeting with my recruiter to find out where we are on sourcing staff — she has a board for that. If I want to know if we’ve processed a change to a schedule, there’s a board for that too. I can find the information I want when I need it. I can refer to it multiple times and it doesn’t get annoying. There is no downside to a well-crafted project management board.

Video Clips

Sometimes you can’t convey what you mean in writing — even if you use a wall of text. Other times, you only remember something when your colleague is gone for the day. For those situations, you can make short videos.

When I first heard of Loom, a video recording app that integrates with Slack, I didn’t see the sense in it. Either you meet with someone in real-time, I reasoned, or not at all.

Then a colleague sent a Loom video via Slack. She wanted to introduce some ideas about a shared project, but the only time she had in her schedule to talk about it was late at night. Creating a video gave us the best of both worlds. I could see my colleague’s facial expressions and hear the tone of her voice as she talked while taking in the information at a more convenient time. The whole experience charmed me down to my socks.

Three situations where sending video clips makes sense:

  • You’re building rapport. If a colleague does something worth celebrating, a short video from the team demonstrates care. Think of it as your own personalized eCard, but in a video.
  • You need to control the tone of your message. Don’t use a video to discipline or fire someone; do that in real-time, with the advice of your HR professional. However, if something has happened in the world market that affects your business, sending the team a quick video with your reaction to the news can help people to remain calm until you get everyone together.
  • You’re working with someone on a divergent schedule. Sending videos can help you collaborate without requiring someone to stay up too late or get up too early. It’s hard to bond when you’re seething with resentment because the team decided to meet at 7 am. Again.

Effective Teams Meet Strategically

There is a time and a place for synchronous meetings. If you want your team to bond, you have to meet as a group on a regular basis. The key is to only meet as often as absolutely necessary and make sure everyone joins the meeting at their own computer.

The biggest frustration remote workers have during hybrid team meetings stems from people violating this rule of thumb. It’s harder for remote team members to get a word in edgewise, to hear what people are saying, and to participate in brainstorming. If everyone is in the virtual meeting room, you can work in a shared google doc, or use a brainstorming software like Mural, to capture ideas in a more inclusive way.

Spend time at the beginning or end of the meeting talking about non-work subjects. This will help the team to see each other as people. Some of those meetings should run without the boss in attendance. This is particularly vital with a hybrid team when one or more members can’t join the group for lunch or a coffee.

Will they talk about you behind your back? Of course. That’s part of the price you pay as the boss. If you explicitly set up a time for your team to talk without you there, they’ll probably even say some good things about you.

Think Recipes, Not Mighty Mouse

Integrating a hybrid group of employees into a team is easier if you remember that there is no one size fits all solution. You won’t create a shared sense of purpose by forcing everyone to give up email and move to instant messaging, or some other trending business solution. None of these apps alone will save the day. Knowledge work is too complex for one-note solutions.

Instead, use a mix of real-time and asynchronous interactions to bond people together. Help them to understand the different roles within the team, and how best to work together. Approach the situation like a master chef. Add in a project management board here, shorten the meeting there, and observe the result. You will soon find that your reports have become a unified group that gets stuff done, no matter where they sit.

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Teresa Douglas

Written by

Mexican Yankee in Canada. Remote work advocate, runner, MBA/MFA, knitter. Blog: teresamdouglas.com. ‘Working Remotely’ forthcoming Simon Schuster Jan 2020

The Startup

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