I’ve been working remotely on and off for over 20 years; often in virtual teams across the globe, but also running a virtual team locally. Here are some of the things I’ve learnt along the way:
Is the task completed? This was one of the main concerns for me. Not because I didn’t trust my colleagues, I simply wanted to know where we stood on certain projects. When you are sitting next to each other in the office, it’s easy to ask a quick question, and know everything is fine. When you are sitting in front of your computer and want to make an extra call or send a message just to follow up on a certain task, it can come across as a lack of trust, impatience and micro-management. I realised I needed to put a few processes in place. Based on my experience I’d recommend the following:
Ask everyone to create a task list and share the updated version with you at the end of every week. This helped me keep track all projects and worry less about whether everything is being done and nothing forgotten.
Ask your team members to identify their priorities according to deadlines, importance of projects or other criteria. Ask them to mark these on the task list and review these priorities first thing on Monday morning. This helped me focus on the most important objectives.
Urgent tasks. If something suddenly comes up, as has certainly been the case in recent weeks, make sure to put into the email subject line something along the lines ‘urgent- please do this now’ and/or text as well as call your colleague. Flexibility and agility are crucial in today’s environment. I’ve discussed this with my team members, and they rose to this challenge wonderfully, and supported the seemingly chaotic task distribution extremely well.
Meetings and communication
Regular team meetings. I tried to run my local team almost 100% virtually for a few months, but it became clear to me that we all needed physical contact as well, even those of us who loved working from home. So, we started weekly face-to-face meetings, often followed by a team lunch. Since you may not be able to have any face-to-face meetings currently, make sure to have these regular team meetings, on the same day, at the same time every week – with video camera on!
Regular calls with team members individually. Just to check in. In addition to the regular face-to-face or online team meetings, we also established regular calls. These calls could last one minute or an hour, depending on how much we had to discuss at that point. These calls and the team meetings established a regular rhythm which helped all of us function as a team.
Emails and any other written communication. I am trying to be much more clear and exact describing what I need compared to how I would verbally. It’s so much easier to misinterpret a casual message, there is no immediate feedback of a frown on the face, a hesitation in the body language or indeed anything at all.
Most of us would probably not get on a call immediately to clarify. This leads me to my next point.
Encourage quick, intermittent phone calls just to clarify emails. Again, the call can be very quick: Do you have any questions about the email I’ve sent you? What will be the first thing you think you’ll need to do? How can I help you do this? If there is already a great amount of trust between you all, the first direct (Do you have questions?) question will work, if the relationship is perhaps newer and the trust/ credibility is still being built, it’s probably better to ask open ended questions.
Establish the rules, and communicate your expectations, and most importantly follow through! Make sure you keep to the rhythm; it will decrease the immense uncertainly so many of us are experiencing now. Be transparent and share the ‘communication schedule’ with your team.
Communication shouldn’t always be about work
Don’t forget to bring fun to work, even if it’s more challenging than it would be in a face-to-face work environment. Fun should be part of our every-day work anyway. Yet, so many (most?) workplaces feel so ‘serious’ with their white walls and cubicles. A growing number of companies have finally introduced more colours, ergonomically designed and also fun looking furniture to their offices. You cannot bring fun easily to people by using colours in the office now but try something virtually. Ask your team members what funny or just personal stories they would like to share. Make this a regular activity. Every Tuesday morning, or every Tuesday and Thursday morning, or every morning at 10am or 4pm we will have a 15-minute fun meeting. People can share video links, cartoons, stories, pieces of advice, etc. during this time. Introduce themes to make it more structured if necessary: Remote working – fun moments, the virtual holiday – I’ve just been to Paris (saw the film An American in Paris), and so on. It may feel forced at first, but it’ll help with the everyday monotony, plus it may also bring all of you together. Try to make sure everybody shares something. Give a call to those who are shy, introverted, etc., and encourage them perhaps to submit something in writing, or just share a link of what they’ve read.
Virtual team lunch and tea break. Also try to arrange virtual team lunches, or if this is too big a stretch, virtual tea breaks. Everyone brings their cup of tea, coffee, water, etc. to the computer, and you have a chat. Ask your colleagues to share one thing that is positive about being at home, then also have a conversation about the associated challenges. Be the first to admit something is less than ideal. Have a toolkit of suggestions about what people can do to manage some of the negatives of working from home.
Create a team space online where all this can be shared. IT companies are currently offering a number of solutions even free of charge. Make sure you utilise technology to keep your team motivated. But make sure everyone has access! If someone doesn’t, reach out to that individual separately and make sure other colleagues reach out too.
Agree on which technology to use for different types of communication. We for example agreed that the general business communication is going through emails. When there is something urgent, then it’s time to use WhatsApp or give a call to each other. You may also want to split the channels for ‘serious’ and ‘fun’ messages and dedicate a place where everyone can post the fun pictures, videos, etc.
Summing it up: Set up a clear and transparent structure for workflow and communication, clarify understanding regularly and be patient. Most importantly, communicate, clarify and communicate more!