Updated: Sep 28, 2021
Digital collaboration is here to stay. Telecommuting has become the must-have perk for millennial workers, many employees have relocated far away from the office, and organizations must be ready to pivot to remote work if governments impose more restrictions.
I’ve been working on remote teams for over a decade, and I have good news: digital collaboration can be highly effective . . . if there is a clear purpose and vision, an agreed-upon method of collaborating, and defined roles and responsibilities. In fact, research from Mars, Inc., reported in the Harvard Business Review, indicates a project-based approach with clear goals may work better than traditional teambuilding for in-person teams, too!
Here are three essential keys to create a successful, ultra-productive remote team:
Define your why and what
Business consultants like David Allen reiterate the need to begin with clarity about what you’re doing and why. If you’re working with remote employees, they need to know your company’s priorities and values. In my opinion, this is more important for getting work done than the “company culture” that many are afraid of losing in remote environments.
If you’re contracting work out, the contractors don’t necessarily need to understand your whole business plan. They do need to know your purpose and desired outcome for the website, database, app, or other deliverable you’re asking them to build. If they are providing a regular service for you, they need to understand the expectations you have. For example, if they’re a courier, how quickly do you need materials delivered?
Choose tools and workflows that work for everyone on the team
I’m not a fan of long or unnecessary meetings (Zoom fatigue is real!), but if you’re starting a new project with several people, you need to start with a conversation about shared workflows that accommodate everybody. More than once I’ve realized someone on my team wasn’t contributing because they didn’t know how to fully utilize a key technology or system. They didn’t see my messages because they didn’t have notifications turned on, or they were having trouble logging in. Most recently, a project management spreadsheet I’d created didn’t make sense to a close collaborator. I didn’t realize this was why certain aspects of the project were stalled. After we talked about it, we switched from a spreadsheet to a document and were able to collaborate much more successfully!
I’ll dive into specific project management tools in another post. The important thing is to understand what tools everyone has access to and already knows how to use. It can be embarrassing for people to admit they don’t understand a technology, so you might start by figuring out (via a meeting or survey) what technologies everyone is comfortable with. Email? Zoom? Google Drive? If someone doesn’t know how to use a tool that’s necessary for the project’s success, assign a tech-savvy person on your team to teach them or assist them. Be sure to recognize the helper for their willingness to help, and the learner for their openness to learn!
People also have preferences about how to do work. I love email and manage it effectively, but many people hate it. If one person wants to work entirely over email and another wants to get everything done in weekly two hour coworking sessions, then the solution is to compromise. Use email for most things and have a 15 minute weekly check-in to make sure everyone is on the same page and on task. Or you might use both an online brainstorming tool and a videoconference brainstorming session to allow everyone to share their ideas in the way that’s most comfortable for them.
Have someone responsible for keeping things on track
Speaking of meetings, many find them to be key for accountability. On complex projects it can be more efficient to talk through multiple issues and questions in real time (i.e., synchronously). But I’ve found that even entirely remote projects can work well as long as someone--a project manager, supervisor, chair, or coordinator--is invested in the success of the project and actively shepherding the process.
Especially these days, things don't always go according to plan. People can drop the ball for many valid reasons, and someone needs to be watching to make sure it’s picked up. You, or whoever the responsible person is, must be in contact with all the key players, know when milestones are due, and troubleshoot when milestones are not being met.
Yes, in a perfect world, the whole team is equally invested in the success of the project! In my experience, though, when something is everyone’s responsibility, it ends up being no one’s responsibility. We all have a lot on our plates these days, and a project needs to be at the top of at least one person’s list or it simply won’t get done. This person also makes sure that any meetings are run efficiently (agendas are a must!) and everyone else knows the expectations for their piece of the project.
Again, these tips work equally well for in-person teams. Starting your remote project by talking about what you’re trying to accomplish, ensuring that everyone is comfortable with the workflow, and appointing someone to keep the project on track are key to success. I’ve loved collaborating on publishing projects and event planning with people around the country and the world. They often introduce me to new ideas and tools I wouldn’t find out about otherwise. On the other hand, work cultures can be radically different. Clear planning and responsibilities can transcend these differences, help the team stay motivated, and produce the results you’re looking for.