“Distributed teams”, “location-flexible”, “telecommuting”, “WFH” (working from home). A whole new language for a whole new way of working. Many of us had never even heard of these terms until a few weeks ago and now thousands of teams around the world are scrambling to switch from working together in an office to working remotely. How can we do that, and do it well?
Remote working has already been on the rise for some time. In the US, between 2005-2017 there was a 159% increase in the number of people working away from the office. 50% of millennials in the US now work freelance and IWG’s Global Workspace Survey found that 70% of professionals work remotely at least one day per week. As companies recruit more talent globally and cut back on office overheads (as well as face global risks like conflict, climate change and travel restrictions) remote working is rapidly becoming a necessity rather than a choice for huge swathes of the population.
Combat isolation and encourage interaction
While the idea of working in your pajamas and avoiding the daily subway commute may be appealing at first (one study found that 23% of workers would be willing to take a pay cut in exchange for the privilege) many people who’ve tried home working are less than enthusiastic. From poor internet connection to demotivation and disconnection from colleagues, employees don’t always respond positively.
It doesn’t always work perfectly for employers either. Several prominent firms who rolled out remote working initiatives later backtracked on the idea. IBM once boasted that 40% of their workforce were remote, but later hit the headlines when they reversed their working from home policy. Yahoo famously ended its remote work policy with the announcement that “We need to be one Yahoo!, and that starts with physically being together.” The head of HR explained it was because “some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions.”
It’s clear that remote work poses challenges. A productive, happy and effective remote team requires coordination, creativity and the right tools. We need to try to replace those valuable “hallway and cafeteria discussions” in a virtual way.
Since its very inception our company has operated remotely so we’ve had a few years to try things out and make some mistakes along the way. Read on for our top tips on how to keep your team connected and productive when working remotely.
Simulate real-life interaction
1. Ditch the emails
Email can already be a very “distant” form of communication; just think of all those long-winded threads and ccs dating back months. While email has its place (formal and important communications, conversations with external stakeholders) if your team is working remotely, you need to try to make them feel like they’re working side-by-side. Use the phone, video call or a messaging system instead.
2. Use a workplace collaboration tool
If you don’t already use one, get your team using a decent instant messaging system like Slack or Microsoft Teams instead of email. With integrated video calls, these online services allow colleagues to communicate 1-1 or in groups. Separate channels function as organized spaces to discuss certain topics or projects. Compared with email, they offer a more immediate, sociable and collaborative forum for communication, which creates an experience that’s closer to working together in-person.
Slack also integrates with third-party tools and can be used for project management, file sharing, video conferencing, and so on.
Create an office-like environment with rules
One of the key problems cited by remote workers is a lack of motivation and productivity. The physical act of going to work in another location provides us with structure, routine and a sense of transition between home- and work life. While video meetings on Zoom, Skype or Google Meet might force you to get dressed in the morning, there’s more to creating a “virtual office” environment than just putting a pair of pants on (although that’s also a key step).
Think of the routines, activities, and structures that help you work effectively as a team inside the office, and try to replicate them online. It’s not as impossible as it sounds.
3. Continue with fixed meetings at allotted times
Think of the weekly team meeting, where everyone is expected to attend and present what they’re working on and update others on their progress. When your team is working remotely, schedule fixed meeting times with a formal agenda (keep to it!) and make sure everyone is present. Be as strict as you would be in the office as high expectations boost morale and a sense of professionalism.
4. Set boundaries
Dress for work as it creates a physical, visual and psychological distinction between personal and work time, according to experts including HR consultant Mason Donovan. There’s no need to wear a suit and tie, but swapping into work attire helps you make that mental switch.
Sticking to fixed (or at least semi-organized) working hours also helps you foster healthy boundaries. Plan your timetable and share your schedule with colleagues via Google Calendar. Google Calendar is one of the most helpful collaboration tools in G Suite for remote working. You might think of a calendar as something for self-organization, something private, but Google Calendar is also an incredibly intuitive coordination tool for distributed teams.
When working remotely you probably have more freedom over your working hours than your would in the office and Google Calendar allows you to align with colleagues simply and easily. You can communicate when you are available, see when others are free, layer different calendars to look for time clashes, book meetings (with integrated Hangouts Meet video meetings) and schedule team events without having to manually send a single message or email (although Google Calendar will automatically send email notifications to inform people of meetings and changes).
5. Introduce an online coffee break
Remote workers miss out on those water-cooler conversations and informal chats that bind a team, create trust and friendship and a sense of belonging. Our team works around the world in multiple different locations so we introduced a Friday “coffee break.” The format is simple: everyone is paired up with someone at random, then you meet for 30 minutes on Google Meet and you chat over a coffee! It might sound a bit artificial, but once you get used to the idea, it actually works really well. It functions as a small “breather” from work, a chance to get to know colleagues from other departments and it really helps to build a sense of warmth and solidarity in a geographically disconnected team.
Switch to online files and use the right tools
Remember that working with anything physical is an impediment to effective remote working. Paper files and documentation are obviously a no-no. But this applies to software as well. On-premise software (applications you install and run on your computer’s hard drive) is problematic for remote teams.
6. Use collaborative tools
If you currently use on-premise software like Microsoft Office, migrating to a cloud-based package of tools (such as Google’s G Suite) will make it easier for you to transition to remote working. G Suite applications are hosted online, so anyone can log in to a file from anywhere, and multiple people can collaborate in the same file, in real-time. You will never have to email a file as an attachment, phone a colleague to ask for a figure or ask someone to send you an updated file — ever again. You will always have the latest version (the only version!) at your fingertips.
Google Docs allows multiple users to read, edit and communicate (via comments) inside the same text document in real time. So unless you’re a technical writer who needs advanced word processing features, Google Docs is a far better option for remote teams than Microsoft Word. Everything is updated automatically. Remember the days when forgetting to hit “save” could wipe out an entire day’s work? Working in cloud software means that will never happen again.
Google’s answer to Excel, Google Sheets, works on the same basis. The entire team can access the same, up-to-date spreadsheet via their browser. All they need is the link.
7. Do some training
To prepare for Microsoft to Google migration, spend some time learning about the key differences and invest in expert training and advice to get it right. Check out Ben Collin’s Excel to Google Sheets workshops, online courses and how-to guides. As one of the world’s leading Google Sheets experts, his courses have helped over 20,000 people understand how to work with Google Sheets and make the transition smoothly.
8. Store files in shared spaces
Make sure your entire team can access every file they need by saving them to a shared folder, such as the company’s Google Drive or Dropbox. Remind colleagues to check that they have enabled sharing permissions correctly, allowing collaborators to view or edit files as necessary.
9. Improve the quality of your video calls
It might sound obvious but it’s easier to create an authentic “face-to-face” experience if your colleagues can see your face. Video conferencing can be almost as authentic and natural as sitting in a room together, but it helps if you take a few steps to ensure the quality is a bit better than when you’re FaceTiming your mom. Remember to:
- Use headphones with a microphone so that your own voice isn’t echoing back through your own computer’s speakers. If you spend a large proportion of time on calls, invest in a quality speakerphone like a Jabra.
- Push your screen back so you’re clearly visible and check the lighting.
- On a group call, mute yourself when you’re not speaking. Close the door, shut the window and try to reduce background noise. These sounds may be imperceptible to you but they can be incredibly annoying for people trying to listen to you, as they’re picked up by the microphone.
- Sharing your screen and presenting to the group is an easy way to illustrate what you’re talking about. Before you click, remember they will see everything on your screen — close any tabs you don’t want your clients or colleagues to see!
10. Move physical events online
Wondering what happens to conferences and events when your team is working remotely and your customers or clients are spread far and wide? Events can also continue — with a little creativity. Online event platforms like Hopin promise to “make distance irrelevant” by hosting events via live streams and videos. From workshops and networking events to trade shows, Hopin’s impressive software replicates real-life events with designated areas like a “stage” and “expo booths.” Our team has used Hopin for online conferences, and we found it worked brilliantly for participating in expert talks, interacting with attendees and networking with partners.
Use software to share information in a better way
Everyday frictions in the office are often due to mis- or non-communication. The risk of the message not getting across is amplified when you’re working remotely. You can avoid this by reducing the need for back-and-forth communication about tedious things.
In an automated workflow, the data flows automatically, and you decide where (and to whom) you want that data to go. This can completely eliminate the need for communication. Imagine that you regularly share certain figures with a colleague in another department. Instead of having to hold a meeting, send an email or discuss it over a call, you can create a workflow to share that specific data with them. Google Sheets’ collaboration function is powerful, but sometimes you don’t want to share an entire spreadsheet. Sheetgo enables you to create custom workflows, moving and filtering the precise data you want, from sheet to sheet.
12. Use live work sessions
Instead of discussing the work you have done or will do, try to do it together, in real time. This means working in shared, online, files like Google Docs or Google Slides. If you’re working on a project that will require hundreds of messages back and forth, schedule a video work session instead. Talking to each other live whilst working in the file, you can often get a task completed in half the time it would take otherwise.
13. Use a collaboration platform
If you’ve got a big team all working on G Suite, connect and integrate everyone and everything with a platform like happeo. It connects all the G Suite tools to create a kind of intranet, portal and HR directory in one.
14. Create a community culture
If colleagues know and understand each other better on a personal level, there is less chance of confusion or misunderstanding on a professional level. Working with a diverse team of 10 nationalities and speakers of multiple languages, we try to foster a sense of cross-cultural friendship and understanding with online gaming nights, a “Random” Slack channel to post non-work stuff and regular video conferences and co-working for the entire company including Town Hall meetings and monthly hackathons.
15. Track tasks and productivity
Imagine a typical team meeting around a table, with post-it notes, a whiteboard and everyone contributing ideas to the brainstorming session. Well-functioning remote teams find a way to replicate that experience — but online.
Use a project management tool. There’s some great project management software out there such as Basecamp that give you a virtual space to collaborate on projects as a team. Think to-do lists, file storage, project schedules and messaging systems, all in one.
Use simple spreadsheets. Don’t want to spend more money on expensive software? No problem. You can use your everyday office software as an effective project management tool for a remote team. Check out our free Google Sheets-based templates for planning and tracking company OKRs and project management. With a spreadsheet-based workflow you can plan projects, set deadlines and goals with colleagues, update progress and report information in dashboards across your team, without having to send any messages back and forth. For more help and guidance on setting up a spreadsheet-based workflow, talk to one of our experts.
Keep your team connected when working remotely
If you’ve never done it before or you have to make the switch suddenly, working remotely can be a challenge at first. But thanks to new online technology, it’s improving all the time. Look after yourself and stay healthy with breaks for exercise. Don’t forget to reach out to others if you’re feeling isolated or lonely, look after yourself and your colleagues — schedule a daily video check in to support each other, boost morale and maintain a cohesive team structure.