Find it difficult to collaborate with a remote team? You aren’t alone.
About 40% of managers don’t feel confident in their ability to manage and collaborate with their remote team, a Harvard Business School study found. And almost 20% of employees in a Buffer study say collaborating and communicating with their fellow team members is the most difficult part of working from home.
It makes sense.
Employees used to bounce ideas off each other in the break room. They dropped in the boss’ office to get an opinion. Colleagues informally brainstormed their way to the next great idea.
Now there are walls, buildings, miles and the coronavirus between people. And teams can’t collaborate as well as they used to.
“Why do remote teams demand new collaboration skills? What’s missing from our texts, emails, conference calls and other digital communications? Body language,” say researchers and authors Erica Dhawan and Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic in the Harvard Business Review. “These misinterpretations create an anxiety that can become costly, affecting morale, engagement, productivity and innovation.”
So HR leaders and front-line managers need to help employees collaborate more effectively as they continue to work remotely full- or part-time.
Here are seven best practices for better collaboration:
Establish communication norms
For remote employees to collaborate better, they need to communicate efficiently. Establish norms and expectations to make it happen.
Teams will want to determine which channel(s) they’ll use primarily – Slack, Google Docs, Workplace from Facebook, for instance. Determine guidelines on when to send messages and expect responses.
Teams may also want to create channels specific to projects, subjects or tasks. Then only the people who need to collaborate are involved. Everyone isn’t overwhelmed by messaging.
Companywide, you might want to create a dictionary of common language. For example, Merck made acronyms for digital communication, including 4HR (Four Hour Response) and NNTR (No Need to Respond).
Set ‘Sprint’ and ‘Milestone’ goals
Employees who are headed toward the same goal collaborate more effectively to reach it.
That’s why teams at Tara AI set Monthly Milestone and Weekly Sprint goals. Teams establish a big-picture goal for the month, including the outcomes they expect.
Then they break down tasks into weekly (or bi-weekly) sprints so team members can set their priorities and schedule time to collaborate with each other or the boss, explains Tara AI Co-founder and CEO Iba Masood.
Set up recurring meetings
Set aside time weekly for team members to collaborate on video. Ideally, do it at the same time and with an agenda. That way, everyone can prepare what they need to say and know ahead of time. And you don’t waste time talking in circles.
For instance, Zara AI teams have a daily “15-minute Huddle.” They go over what everyone plans to accomplish, what they need to get it done and potential hurdles to success.
They also have a “Sprint” planning meeting to plan or adapt for the next week. Plus, they have a “Story Time” meeting to review upcoming work, ask questions and clarify requirements before they break down the tasks.
But remember: It’s important to establish a decent cadence of video meetings. But it’s equally important to cancel meetings if you don’t have a clear goal to achieve.
Focus on clarity
Teams struggle to collaborate when they’re separated. They’ll struggle more if they aren’t laser-focused on clear communication.
So even though brief messages are efficient, they can cause confusion.
Encourage team leaders and members to put in a little extra time to communicate with intention. Explain the why behind a request or instruction. Give definitive deadlines – not ASAP. Embed links for more details. Ask others to point out what’s not clear so you can clarify – and build a better message next time.
Create space and time for friendship
Friends naturally collaborate more than colleagues who aren’t so friendly. They have more social conversations, which create opportunities to collaborate professionally.
HR leaders and managers can increase collaboration by giving team members time and space to build personal relationships.
Try to create virtual spaces for rituals employees shared on-site – from diversity and inclusion initiatives to book clubs and happy hours. Ask for volunteers to plan social events and celebrations that you can do virtually.
At Successfuel, HRMorning’s parent company, our Fun Committee launched holiday photo contests. Employees posted photos on a Slack channel of Halloween costumes, Thanksgiving dinner feasts and holiday decorations. Colleagues voted on the best. We handed out gift cards to the winners.
The contests helped us keep up with employees in the months since we all worked and collaborated together on-site.
One team’s collaboration efforts probably won’t work perfectly for another team. And what works this month might not work for everyone next month.
HR leaders and managers want to encourage flexibility to help their teams collaborate more effectively.
For instance, at Opportunity Network, the marketing team starts and ends their day with video calls, explains Maya Cress, PR & communications manager. Meanwhile, the account management team has a “Hot Topic” video conference for members to bring up a challenge and get suggestions, solutions and workarounds from colleagues. And the operations team schedules a daily chat for anything but business.
On the less formal side, they’ve done companywide collaboration through “catch-up coffee hours,” workout sessions, after-work drinks and a live gaming session.
Create opportunities to collaborate
Give team members more chances to collaborate. But do it in a way you don’t create unnecessary meetings and/or red tape.
For instance, managers might delegate a higher-level responsibility to two members who are ready to step up and can collaborate to get it done. Give them the goal, deadlines and expectations. But let them choose how they’ll collaborate.
Or ask a group to gather best practices for working from home and create a platform to share and update them regularly.