Business closures and social distancing protocols have accelerated the trend of working remotely. According to PwC’s U.S. Remote Work Survey, 32% of employees now work from home five days a week. Both employers and employees agree that they are at least as productive—if not more productive—while sheltering at home due to the ongoing public health crisis. As a matter of fact, 44% of employers say that productivity has increased during this period.
In order to make your remote team productive and collaborative—without burning out—it’s important to create an efficient system that improves workflow and team collaboration.
Experts point out, though, that what works in the office does not always translate to remote work.
Establishing Remote Team Norms
In a phone interview with The Balance, Nancy Settle-Murphy, founder of Boston-area consulting firm Guided Insights and a virtual teams expert, said that a good remote team manager must establish specific team norms for working from home. These include:
- Working hours: Agree upon working hours, and if you’re offering flexibility, decide if there are specific times the whole team should be working each week.
- Communication: Decide on which platform the team should collaborate and stick to it to ensure that communication is clear and not missed.
- Signifying presence: Decide how an employee will signify they’re available to meet or talk—like turning their availability on in Slack.
One option for establishing these norms is to create a virtual work agreement spelling out these expectations that is shared with employees.
Understanding Remote Team Personalities
According to Settle-Murphy, switching to remote work can affect employees in a variety of ways, and it’s important for managers to be attuned to their team’s personalities to mitigate any issues.
Personal and Social Needs
Understanding that an introvert may need more specific questions asked in order to share their point of view, or that someone that is living alone may need more social interaction beyond just work talk, is important to making employees feel valued and appreciated.
Level of Independence
Understanding an employee’s level of independence is important. With no spontaneous interactions or check-ins, it’s important to proactively schedule a time to check in on projects for employees who need it.
It’s easier for dominant personalities to take over an online meeting. Managers should be prepared with interventions to ensure that everyone has a voice.
The Importance of Remote Collaboration
Experts widely agree that the key to good remote collaboration is understanding that what works for in-office workers won’t necessarily work for remote teams.
“Optimizing asynchronous tools like Threads or Twist over synchronous communication like Slack and Zoom allows you to create systems and processes where employees can collaborate without needing to be online at the same time,” Hailley Griffis, Head of PR at social media-focused company Buffer, told The Balance via email. According to Griffis, whose company has always had a fully remote workforce, this communication strategy helps with collaboration across time zones, and also allows employees to deal with the unique needs that a health crisis has presented, such as parents who are homeschooling their children.
Interacting with a remote team means that there are no incidental run-ins throughout the office, or opportunities for a quick chat or check-in.
However, experts advise adding in regular check-ins with your team—whether those are daily or weekly—to ensure that you are in tune with their needs.
One other challenging area is editing or design critiques. Teams can switch to online tools like file sharing, online design, or whiteboard tools and collaborate to make edits, suggestions, and changes.
Streamlined Access to Information
Centralized information where everyone has access to the right documents is a tremendous challenge for teams—and the dreaded emailing of attachments can seriously hinder having the most up-to-date information and cause project delays.
Settle-Murphy recommended that companies decide on a centralized depository and require that remote employees learn the tool, identify who has editing privileges, and give up other ways of storing or communicating about documents to ensure that everyone is on the same page for any piece of information.
Tools for Better Collaboration and Workflow
The right tools are essential to remote team success—and many of these tools are different from what teams might have previously used in office.
- Asynchronous communication tools such as Threads or Twist create organized discussions that can be searched.
- Synchronous communication tools such as Slack, IM, or Microsoft Teams can be more useful and immediate than email as an internal communication tool.
- Virtual meeting tools such as Zoom, Skype, or Microsoft Teams provide face-to-face team interactions.
- Online document editing tools, such as Google Docs, allow each team member to have the most current version of a document and allow collaborative editing, synchronously or asynchronously.
- Online meeting collaboration tools such as MeetingSphere provide a platform for more productive meetings by allowing questions to be posted in advance, allowing participants to build on comments and bring the pre-work into the meeting.
- Online whiteboard tools such as Miro or Google Jam Board provide an opportunity to brainstorm ideas visually.
Task Management Tools
A variety of project and task management tools such as Basecamp, Asana, and Trello provide a way for the entire team to see the status of projects or tasks, their role in them, and whether milestones are being met.
Building a Workflow for Better Collaboration
Settle-Murphy emphasized the importance of teamwork in developing the right workflow for employees.
Assigning a Team
Assign a team (the size of the team depends upon the size of your organization) to analyze your current workflow and decide what areas need to be improved upon. Start with a list of areas and choose a few of the most pressing to focus on first.
Assigning a Subteam
Assign a subteam of two or three people to brainstorm solutions to your workflow issues, starting with identifying any choke points that need to change. The subteam will identify the areas that need improvement and share with the larger group of decision makers.
From there, the subteam should brainstorm potential solutions and vet them with the larger group. “Norms shouldn’t come from one person,” Settle-Murphy advised. “It’s important that they are vetted with the larger group.”
A Flexible Future
While the abrupt shift to remote work was a result of social distancing and other safety needs, at some level, it seems here to stay. In the PwC survey, 72% of employees said they’d like to continue working from home at least two days a week for the long term.
“I believe that in an ideal scenario where remote workers can choose whether to work from home or a coffee shop, library, or coworking space, that it does improve productivity, which ultimately increases overall work at the company,” Griffis added.