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How leaders can encourage teamwork while working remotely

Prior to COVID-19, 16% of the U.S. workforce worked remotely at least part of the time. Although 2020 data isn’t yet available, it’s a safe bet that figure has doubled or tripled during the pandemic.

As employees adjust to their new normal, business leaders are also struggling to adapt. Teams still have to be teams, even when their members work in separate places. The trouble is, collaboration and camaraderie are a lot tougher to create through a screen.

In a time when team members are worried about their own families and incomes, leaders have their work cut out for them. Here’s how they can get remote teams to work together well:

1. Create a sense of normalcy

When the pandemic hit, millions of people’s work routines changed. Some were furloughed and had to file for unemployment. Even the lucky ones worried about their job security and productivity at home.

To support their teams, leaders found small ways to make things seem “normal.” Ontraport founder and CEO Landon Ray created a daily vlog to keep employees informed on company shifts and leadership decisions. He also let employees take whatever they needed from the office, delivered snack bags to remote employees and even paid for air conditioning for team members whose homes didn’t have it.

Where did they come up with the funds? Because conferences and airline tickets had to be canceled, Ontraport’s leaders could move around funds within the company’s travel budget. And because there were no diners to enjoy its on-campus meals, the food budget was also shifted to better support the team in their new work from home normal.

Even if your company doesn’t have much to spend, it can still create normalcy through its traditions and processes. Why not do a BYOB happy hour over Zoom? If you give weekly awards, those can be done via video as well.

2. Centralize your knowledge

When everyone is in the same office, it’s easy to pop over a cubicle to ask a question. When you’re working remotely, you need a one-stop shop for company knowledge.

Tools like Slack make it easier to ask quick questions, and project management systems centralize work. Neither can take the place, however, of a corporate wiki or knowledge base. Your team needs at-a-glance access, not just to each other and their task list, but also to all of your company’s key processes and documents.

Creating a company encyclopedia takes time, of course. Encourage the leader of each team to brain-dump about its core responsibilities, initiatives, documents and histories. Appoint an editor to clean it all up, checking back once a month or quarter to update old entries.

3. Establish guidelines for face time

We tend to think about communication as words, but nonverbal communication is a crucial part of how we interact.

When you’re simply asking team members to complete a survey, a Slack message or email is enough. But if you’re trying to get your marketing or sales team’s buy in on a new campaign, hopping on the phone is a smart move.

Decide as a team: What circumstances call for a video call? Default to video when discussing:

  • Any decision involving multiple teams
  • A topic that’s personal in nature, such as mental health issues
  • Team-ide updates, such as a new HR policy
  • Status changes, such as hirings, layoffs and furloughs
  • Company culture events, such as trivia

4. Draw clear boundaries

Teams need clear expectations to work together effectively. Should people feel free to take a walk during the workday? If a remote team member gets sick, are they still expected to work that day? When they take lunch, should they set their status to “Away” in Slack?

Particularly important while working remotely are work-life boundaries. A Trello survey showed 37.5% of workers prefer to disconnect at the end of the workday, 18.1% use time-boxing to plan their days, and 16.7% schedule “me” time.

Give workers clarity around what’s OK and what’s not. Perhaps hour-by-hour time-boxing doesn’t make sense for your customer service team. Instead, you might ask them to choose one day each week to engage in deep work, such as adjusting their script.

Get buy-in from your team on those boundaries. If someone has a suggestion around how time-boxing can be implemented, hear them out. Their idea might just work, and they’ll respect you for taking their input into account.

5. Create a virtual watercooler

Whether workspaces have a literal watercooler, every organization has a metaphorical one: a space where they talk about everything from movies to politics to the new restaurant in town.

Chitchat might seem like a waste of time, but don’t underestimate its role in facilitating teamwork. Organizational psychologists attribute the “watercooler effect” to a 10% to 15% bump in productivity.

Why would off-topic conversations help workers get more done? Because workers feel more connected to one another when they’re able to communicate casually.

Replicating this phenomenon virtually can be tough. Set up a channel in your instant messaging system where employees can unwind. Use small prompts to get them talking: What’s their current favorite show on Netflix? Whose recipe is a must-try?

Just as valuable are virtual happy hours. At the end of a tough week, put a Zoom call on the calendar with no purpose other than hanging out. For bonus points, have each employee’s favorite drink delivered to their house.

6. Provide plenty of feedback

Like everyone else, employees are adjusting to the “new normal.” They need to know that they’re on the right track.

Feedback, like water-cooler conversations, happens naturally in the office. But when everyone is remote, you have to be intentional about it.

Give your team feedback formally and informally. Formalize it with periodic performance reviews, post-project commentary and peer surveys. Informally, you can:

  • Provide in-the-moment pointers
  • Pass on client compliments and criticisms
  • Check in “just because” on Slack
  • Reward wins with gifts, such as gift cards or delivered meals
  • Ask how you can help when someone seems stressed

As a leader, supporting your team should be a top priority. Make sure your staff knows their hard work doesn’t go unnoticed.

To say COVID-19 has changed how we work is an understatement. And while the pandemic will pass, remote work is here to stay. Don’t wait to figure out how to work as a distributed team — it might be awhile before you’re back together again.

 

Rashan Dixon is a senior business systems analyst at Microsoft, entrepreneur and a writer for various business publications.

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