Five tips for effective remote teaming

MEng faculty share their best tips on how leaders can facilitate an effective transition to remote teamwork.

On the left, image by Christina @ wocintechchat.com on Unsplash. On the right, the five panelists during the webinar.

Shortly after the shelter-in-place ordinance, the MEng leadership teaching team came together to discuss how to navigate remote teaming. Here, we share the top five takeaways from the conversation Alex Beliaev had with Anita Balaraman, Keith Tandowsky, Leah Edwards, and Sonia Travaglini.

1. Step up your preparation for meetings and deliverables

Understand that you won’t be able to communicate in real-time, and that effective work will require more preparation and communication on your part regarding meetings, deliverables, and schedules. Make sure your entire team is familiar with the tools you will be using during this time.

Leah: I think when you move to remote teaming it’s even more critical to have really best practices. Lead meetings with agendas so that anybody who wants to gather information ahead of time and come up with their opinions is able to do so. This is really critical.

Sonia: Focus on planning out everything and giving that outline to it. Start to think about contingency planning. For teams that are very focused on technology, we’re starting to think about other options one could have, contingency plans for example, if you’re not able to get your hardware in time.

Keith: Make sure that everybody on the team is familiar with the tools that you’ve decided to use as a group so that you’ll be in a much better place for the rest of the semester and also going forward when you’re working on virtual teams out in the world.

2. Keep things personal

Online meetings can feel awkward, and your team members may feel isolated. To bring awareness to the unusual situation and to help your team members, institute personal check-ins and foster a people-centered approach to work.

Keith: We’re not running into each other or seeing each other regularly. It’s easy to feel isolated from your teams and those are the things that we’re trying to prevent. So you have to be way more active when you’re a virtual team in building relationships.

Anita: I’m having everybody get into a real habit of doing the very personal check-in. When you get onto video, go around and just really ask how is everybody doing. Even if some people are not very comfortable sharing, I ask this to set the tone so that we are all conscious of this being an unusual situation and and we need to rethink our mindsets.

Sonia: Something we do at the beginning of meetings to make it a little less awkward is to go around and see how everyone is doing. We have a virtual basketball that we throw to each other once. You say how you’re doing, how your day’s going, and maybe something from your personal life. Then you throw it to the next person who catches it and so on. This has broken the ice a bit and the online experience a bit smoother, since it can feel disconnected.

Leah: A lot of tech teams, when they were in person, had brief stand-up meetings usually around 10 or 11am in the morning. They just go around, everybody says something. I have encouraged some teams to do that on video. Have a daily standing call and come in, do that same kind of round robin. It’s almost like you had a “standing around the top of the water cooler” kind of moment, just online.

3. Set guidelines for communication

Without seeing team members in-person, communication can decrease drastically. Set clear guidelines for how your team should prepare and communicate in this time.

Anita: You’re not going to be able to communicate real time. I’ve had to be very deliberate and extremely specific about the communication of expectations and deliverables. What is going to get done? How is it going to get done? When is it going to get done? And all that is is up for discussion with a human-centered approach.

Leah: There are some of us that are always happy to do things on the fly. If someone introduced a new idea to us, we’re willing to just give some ideas and comments, and that’s fine. But the majority of introverts would not even be super comfortable doing that even if you were in a really friendly face-to-face room. Be very clear what’s going to be discussed so that people who are introverted can really get their heads around what their opinions are going to be.

Keith: I really think you need to communicate on a daily basis with the team at least one time. Try to send an email or have a call. With teams, I’ve set up guidelines that say anytime there’s a communication by one member of the team, we pushed a certain number of hours in which we would have to communicate back to that person. So maybe within 24 hours.

Sonia: Make sure that when a team makes a decision it is clearly communicated to the rest of the team. So if the key decision is made or a key piece of work is done, it’s really good for people to blast that out to the rest of the team and make sure that everyone knows what the new plan. It helps if you have shorter, but more team meetings. For example cutting down an hour-long team meeting into three 20-minute sections per week. These could be a quick catch-up, and during those you can really just keep a list of key decisions that have been made so that everyone’s still in the loop.

4. Take into account the different circumstances and goals of your team members

Your team members may have relocated or are in new, less-than-ideal workspaces. Some may feel less comfortable holding meetings over video, or be working from different time zones. At the same time, this period may be a good time for individuals to take a step back and reconnect with their personal goals.Take this into account when planning.

Sonia: People may not have backgrounds or lives where they’re able to have nice quiet spaces to work in or they may be traveling a lot at the moment. So one thing we do is try and have sensitivity. We don’t require people to use video when they call in. We do let them know as well that you can also connect video conferencing to normal telephone lines. You can actually dial in with a good old landline. Just give people options to be able to connect. So even if you’re not in an ideal situation, you’re still able to connect with your team.

Anita: I have two team members in different time zones. They had to move back to Singapore. So one thing that we have done is record Zoom sessions for the people that have been in a different time zone and are not able to attend.

Leah: A crisis is an important time to reconnect with one’s personal goals and ask: How do I maximize for that goal? One of the things I’ve suggested to a number of my teams is they really think about their personal careers, and what they’re hoping to do after the program is over. And it’s really important to have this conversation in front of everyone, together with your team, so that everyone can be aware of how things might be modified to support each person. I’m just asking people to really think that there could be a win-win here — that they could find something interesting to do that really advances their personal goals.

5. Deal with conflict right away

With remote meetings, typical informal patterns of conflict resolution may disappear. Set guidelines for dealing with conflict quickly as possible, and make sure that decisions are made transparently.

Keith: Without being able to see somebody face to face it can be really hard to resolve conflict. It’s not like you’re going to be able to walk out of the room after a meeting and say, “Hey you didn’t like what I said,” and talk about it then. Make a commitment as a team that if somebody leaves a meeting feeling unhappy, they immediately try to contact someone afterwards. Have a conversation and don’t let it fester, because if you’re feeling that way others in the room may be feeling that way as well. I can’t stress enough how important it is to deal with any conflict you’re feeling as quickly as possible.

Sonia: Just having three simple rules to be able to follow as a team when there’s a conflict can really help not only cut down the stress but speed things along to a good resolution. One, tracking things on a Google doc or in paper. Clearly state what your idea is and why you think it’s a good idea and then everyone adds their viewpoints. It keeps track of everyone’s ideas and why they think it’s key. Two, voting, which helps cut down on the herd mentality. Before decisions are made, just get a quick poll of people’s ideas, of which one they intuitively think is a good idea. Three, the good old adapt, combine, and reframe. Can you take two of the ideas and combine them into one? Can you adapt one of the ideas to move with the other and could you reframe the entire question if all of them are bad options?

Anita: I’ll say that I found the presence of conflict to be a good thing. It means your team is engaged; they care enough to have an opinion, whether it is the timeline or what is getting done. That’s a good thing, learn to recognize that. The idea that you’re bringing up a conflict indicates that there is something you’ve thought about that somebody else may not have thought about. It’s about channeling it the right way. Start at the point of humility. That’s the only caveat, start with respect.

About the Panelists

Anita Balaraman

Anita is a technology product leader with more than 10 years of experience in building technology products. She is an adjunct faculty at UC Berkeley and the founder of an early stage ed-tech startup. Anita also led the digital customer experience practice at Cisco Systems and the product team at WalmartLabs launching products that combine machine learning, predictive analytics and personalization.

Keith Tandowsky

Keith recently retired from a 35-year career at The Clorox Company, where he had spent the last 19 years as an executive officer, playing many roles as a business partner in all areas of financial management and information technology. Over the last 12+ years of his career, Keith developed expertise in High Performance Executive Team Coaching and had the opportunity to coach many of the key leadership teams and top-ranking individuals at Clorox. He is devoting himself to this area in his retirement from Clorox, and addition to private clients, is now at UC Berkeley, working with the Haas Executive Education program as well as the Fung Institute.

Leah Edwards

Leah is a serial co-founder and advisor to startups and investors. Beginning with her first company being acquired for $380 million within two years, she went on to sell several companies to major companies. Leah now teaches at Stanford, UC Berkeley, and Northeastern University. As an investor and advisor, Leah works with both startups and investors to develop strong teams and business models, as well as the resources necessary for growth.

Sonia Travaglini

Sonia specializes in the intersection of engineering and collaborative communication. In 2018 she was awarded the UC Berkeley Teaching Effectiveness Award for her work on teaching & science communication. Sonia completed her doctorate in Mechanical Engineering with UC Berkeley while working with a variety of Bay Area start-ups on novel natural materials, and helped them develop collaborative research projects. Her work was nominated for the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum’s People’s Choice Award.

Learn more about the Fung Institute at funginstitute.berkeley.edu

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