3 Steps for Aligning Remote Teams to Move Forward Every Day

F:or many of us remote work or teleworking is a brand new reality. Even if we worked from home occasionally, having a full team working remotely is a new challenge to navigate. Some of us are finding out in real time all of the challenges and successes with this new way of working. There are lots of tools and tips out there to make things easier (or even make it possible), but that doesn’t always mean teams feel like they have forward momentum in their projects. When we are also social distancing and forced to work from home, this feeling can lead to feelings of isolation or demotivation. 

In order to move forward every day and keep up morale, leaders and managers need to align remote teams and manage the work differently. If you’re new to remote work or new to managing a team of individual contributors spread across a city or the globe, here are three steps for ensuring your team can work remotely, together:

  1. Set Clear Expectation & a North Star
  2. Set Rituals & Routines to Build Structure and Morale
  3. Always Follow the Buddy System

Step #1: Set Clear Expectations & a North Star

If you’re new to working as a remote team, the first task is to set clear expectations for how your team is going to work together and, most importantly, indicate what is fixed and what is experimental. Carving out time to communicate and align on what is constant is important to help team members feel grounded. The primary objective is to create a sense of psychological safety that employees know who to go to for help and that help will be there when they ask for. Once the fixed constants are identified, it’s time to rally everyone around what is new or experimental so they know they have the agency to adapt and change when things feel like they aren’t working. 

Communication norms and expectations are often the biggest hurdle for remote teams.  People communicate differently and when you’re remote, it makes it more difficult to rely on cues such as body language or tone of voice. Employees on remote teams will spend more time than usual trying to interpret what someone has said, especially if it is in written form. Brevity of a message could easily be misinterpreted as dismissive or uncaring, when someone might simply be trying to be brief or efficient. Talking through these perspectives and other communication basics, such as when to use email or instant messaging tools like Slack, builds a shared understanding and reduces frustration or confusion later on.

Here’s how Peer Insight established norms for remote communication.

It’s totally normal (and highly encouraged) to be experimental in how your team uses and adapts to a new technology. However, these experiments should have clear parameters and expected outcomes for success. If a method, tool, or approach doesn’t meet the success outcomes, it’s time to pivot and try something new.  For these kinds of tests, you can even use a Design Brief to keep your learning goals and project objectives in mind. The Design Brief can also be used for any projects your team is working on and referenced at a daily or weekly huddle.

Ultimately, your team should have a clear North Star to guide how they work independently and together. Providing this guide will make things easier as your team transitions to this new way working because everyone will have a single source of truth. And, if that North Star is incomplete at first, that’s okay; it can be shaped and built as the team’s needs are identified.

Step #2: Set Rituals & Routines to Build Structure and Morale

Once expectations are set, it’s time to put some rituals and routines in place for your team’s operations. You might feel like you’re working like a tech company at times, but having a daily huddle or kick-off call is a great way to help teams stay connected and ensure that everyone understands their tasks and responsibilities for the day. It may seem intimidating or rigorous to put together, but a 10 to 15 minute scrum meeting can have a simple agenda, like this:

  • What are your goals for today?
  • Are you facing any roadblocks today?
  • What did you work on yesterday?
  • How much closer are we to our project goals? What’s your comfort level?
  • What can your team do to support you today?

If you feel that your team doesn’t need such a formal structure, test out more informal coffee or tea times in small groups to maintain social connections with co-workers. Warm-up questions at the start of meetings such as “What is a bright spot in your day today?” are a great way to check-in with each other.

Employees will also be building their own routines and schedules (and if not, recommend they try it!). As your team is transitioning, keep the lines of communication open and find ways to accommodate needs, such as: shifted hours for childcare; communication-free “heads down” time; or fitness / workout preferences. You have the opportunity to be a supportive partner for your team as they shape and settle into their routines.

Consistency will be key for team members to feel that they have a sense of control of their own day-to-day experience and build habits that make them happier, healthier, and therefore more productive.

Step #3: Always Follow the Buddy System

Last, but not least: always follow the buddy system. One of the biggest breakdowns for remote teammates is the lack of a “buddy.” Every employee benefits from having someone who can be relied upon to answer their questions or share ideas with. This does not have to be a supervisor, although that is important. Employees are looking for mutual accountability and the reassurance that they aren’t alone. If they send an email, message, or request for help, the dread will build if they are on the other end waiting with no clear expectation for a response.

A buddy system also breaks down big groups and team meetings. Yes, it’s a lot of fun to see everyone’s face gallery-style in a video conference call, but it makes it difficult for everyone to connect. Tools like Zoom have“breakout” features that make this easier, but simply scheduling time for small groups or pairs using tools like Donut helps to foster a feeling of connection when employees may feel more alone than ever. 

Keep Moving Forward!

One last piece of advice: there will be good days and bad days when we’re working as a team remotely, especially if we crave in-person collaboration. Instead of labeling each day in a binary way, find ways for your team to collectively answer, “Do we feel we are moving ahead?” If you’re feeling behind or demotivated, talk with each other about how you can provide support or remove roadblocks. And if you’re full-speed ahead, celebrate that momentum and find ways to add more fuel to the fire. 

For many of us, remote work may be a temporary solution for problems big and small, whether that is social distancing or waiting at home for an appliance repair. But remote work does not mean that we have to sacrifice productivity, connection or happiness. With a willingness to collaborate and experiment together, our teams can be more successful than ever and keep moving forward.

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