Remote work is a double-edged sword. It can bring a wonderful boost in productivity, but it can also drain us of energy. Being a part of or even in charge of a remote team brings with it its own unique set of challenges. How do we know who is working on what? How do we avoid burn-out? And how to balance it all? Here are few tips from a remote worker with 15 years of experience!
1. Where are you going?
I am sure you know the saying from Alice in Wonderland that if you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there. Henry Kissinger added even a better ending: …every road will take you nowhere! Being on the move might feel fun for a while, but it tends to wear us down if we are not quite sure of our destination.
It might feel tempting to blame the pandemic for our inability to set clear goals, but let’s consider what has changed in terms of goal setting. Did we ever know what was going to happen tomorrow? We might have felt more confident in our projections, but we never truly knew. If we take that as a baseline for usual goal setting, it takes the pressure of the current situation! So, we do not know which way the situation will unfold – consider a few scenarios and plan for those. If the situation changes adjust the process or the goal itself.
Try thinking from big to small. What is the vision of your organisation? What is your team’s role in reaching that vision? And what results should you reach by the end of 2021? From there, keep distilling the smaller goals until you are all clear of where you should get to by the end of next week! Once these start falling into place, the next logical step is to check the frameworks you have in place to support reaching your goals.
2. Set your play-area
A study was conducted by landscape architects about how kids play in different play areas. If there was a fence around the playground, kids would use up all the space and climb on the fence effectively testing their boundaries. If, however, there was no fence, the kids would huddle up and only play in the centre of the area. Without clear boundaries, they would feel unsafe and unsure of how far from the group they could safely venture.
A similar often subconscious behaviour is common to all of us. If we lack clarity on where we are going and what are the frameworks we can safely operate in, fear takes over. And once fear settles in, there is little hope for great creativity and collaboration – keywords for knowledge work we are mostly involved in these days.
Having clear working hours and an office to commute to has provided us with these much-needed boundaries so far. Work used to be mostly confined to the workplace. Now, working remotely, we are always at work. Unless we set ourselves and our teams some frameworks, that is! A great place to start is with boundaries for communication. Remember, we can’t always be on.
I have divided this section into two “ions”: communication and emotion. In the first half, the focus is on actual communication practices and in the other, rather on the emotional reasons for effective communication. Let us start off with a term that all remote workers (should) know by now: asynchronous communication.
Communication: Synchronous vs Asynchronous
When you walk into your colleague’s office or call them on the phone, that is synchronous communication. It happens between people in real time. If we are both online and merrily typing away in any messaging app, it is also synchronous as it happens at the same time. If you then leave your device to go make coffee, it stops being synchronous as I am still engaged in the conversation while you are not. The same applies to emails, voicemails and written notes that are not written and read or recorded and heard at the same time. These are examples of asynchronous communication.
There is a case to be made for both types of communication. What is crucial, is understanding the benefits and pitfalls of both. It might seem like a wonderful thing for a manager to be able to shout out a question in the open office and get quick feedback from everyone there. Time spent by the manager is perhaps a few minutes so if the overview of the answers is the most crucial thing for the company at that time, then it is surely their time well spent. For everyone else though, this 2-minute disruption might mean up to an hour of lost time trying to get back on track with what they were previously working on. Instead, an online poll with a clear timeline sent to everyone’s email might have done the trick without disrupting the whole staff.
Agree upon a communication structure
For any kind of communication to work effectively, clear goals and commonly agreed upon frameworks are needed. If you skipped over the first two chapters of this article, go have a look at them now. If you have followed along, this is where you tie it all together. Sit down with your team (this is a metaphor and can also take the shape of a virtual walking meeting) and decide which communication channels you will use for which goal. Agree upon a structure. For example, sharing pictures of cute cats (or cool old cars) to boost good emotions should happen asynchronously. Use a separate Slack channel or Messenger group. Remember to snooze notifications for things like that! (And invite me to the group if you do set one up for old car pictures!) For going over important team decisions, a meeting in real time would be best.
Even if your team works in different time zones, create time to work together in real time. Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson of Basecamp have devoted a paragraph on this in their timely book from 2013, “Remote – Office Not Required”.
“Thankfully, there are lots of enjoyable work-life schedules outside the regular 9am to 5pm. Embrace that. Ironically, you’ll probably get far more done when only half of your workday overlaps with the rest of your team. Instead of spending the entire day dealing with Urgent!!! emails and disruptive phone calls, you’ll have the entire start (or end) of the day to yourself.”Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson, 2013
Emotion: why we communicate
Now, once the structures around communication are in place, let us look at one of the reasons for communicating with team members at all: emotion. Whether we are introverts, extroverts, or ambiverts, we all need some time spent with other people. The duration and the intensity might vary, but we are all need to feel as part of a community. Your team can be a great source of positive emotions if you allow space for it.
Having a voluntary coffee morning or informal virtual lunch once a week might be just what is needed to vent, celebrate successes, and connect as human beings discussing weekend plans, the joys of home schooling or your cooking experiments. Adding some well-designed team development activities, self-development workshops or peer-learning sessions can elevate the emotional connection even further. If done well, these experiences build trust and enhance collaboration, which are hallmarks of a strong team culture. With a strong team, your goals become far more attainable! So, come together, set those goals and frameworks, and connect meaningfully to build a successful remote team. And reach out if you think we can help!