When we started this year no one thought we’d end it with most of the world still working from home. Adapting to remote work has been a consistent theme of 2020 and as the year comes to a close, it’s worth examining how well your team has been able to work together when they’ve been physically apart. We all want to start 2021 on a stronger footing and make sure we’re prepared for the unexpected ways we weren’t this year. So if your remote team isn’t collaborating as effectively as you’d like from a distance, then now is a great time to look at what you can do differently to help bring your team together and build a plan for a fresh start in January.
Tactics to improve remote collaboration
A recent Harvard Business Review study revealed that 40% of managers doubt their ability to manage and collaborate with remote teams well. Given that most managers were never trained in remote management this isn’t surprising but what are some tactics that remote leaders can use to support stronger team collaboration?
Set up communication standards: The biggest detriment to team collaboration is a breakdown in team communication. How team members communicate, and how often, will shape how effectively they are able to work together remotely. Think about what collaboration or brainstorming used to look like in the office. There were probably lots of casual conversations at desks or by the water cooler that sparked ideas and creativity. That sort of team communication is probably absent on most remote teams. In its place, you need to build a more structured and planned approach to communication. Make sure your team understands how they should be communicating and how often. Look at what collaboration tools you’re using to make sure employees have the right channels to reach their colleagues on. Everyone’s return in January is a perfect time to reiterate your communication plan and any rules that employees should be aware of in order to start the new year with more clarity and structure.
Understand personality: Think about how our interpersonal relationships are developed and managed on teams. In the office, they benefit from the familiar routine of seeing each other daily and those small interactions that lay the groundwork for workplace friendships. In a remote world, it’s harder to get to know someone over video chat and develop a strong relationship with them. One way to address that is by helping your employees understand the personalities at play on a team and how that might impact work in a remote context. Assessments are a great way to do this in a virtual setting as they can be sent, scored, and debriefed online. They’ll also help your team learn about each other’s temperament, work style, and communication preferences which can all decrease conflict and increase connection. When employees have a better understanding of their colleagues, they’re more likely to find ways to collaborate that work to each other’s strengths.
Make use of unstructured time: We often talk about how to add more structure to remote teams to keep them on track when they’re working apart. Having a strong team structure and clear expectations are important, of course, but if the goal is to improve collaboration, think about loosening the reins when it comes to creativity. Unstructured collaboration time can be very effective for teams in the right doses. This ties back to trying to mimic those casual conversations that used to happen in the office. Great ideas can come from chatting with colleagues, even if that has to happen over Zoom these days. One way to build more unstructured time into your team schedule is by setting a recurring meeting weekly or monthly where your team can drop-in and out as needed to talk through challenges or brainstorm with each other. The idea is not to control or have a set agenda for what will happen in these meetings but rather to let them evolve organically out of whatever work is being done that week. Having a reoccurring meeting like this will get your team more used to connecting and trading ideas via video and can have the added benefit of improving team morale and engagement.
Let teams learn together: Your team might not be collaborating well because they might be feeling disconnected from each other. If that’s the case, consider turning to some L&D to bring them back together. Teams that learn together, especially if it’s a new skill that will help them in their remote work, are more likely to reach out and close that distance when they run into problems. Encouraging e-learning or training can also help energize your employees if employee engagement is declining. This time of year is always hard on morale, not to mention we’re right at the end of a particularly rough year. Helping your team learn something new or develop a new skill can boost engagement, improve teamwork, and show your employees you’re committed to supporting their growth within the company.
Use the right tools: Are you making use of the best tools as we move into 2021? This year has seen a boom in HR tech and online collaboration tools. You’re probably already using Zoom, Skype, and Slack but it never hurts do an audit of any other software you’re leveraging and see if there’s room for improvement. Maybe your team is lacking a resource they need to collaborate more easily or maybe you’re using too many programs when your team really only uses a handful. A good rule of thumb is to send out an end of year survey to see where your team is at before the new year. This is a good opportunity to add a question about tools and tech to see if your team is interested in anything you might not have considered. Communication platforms and project management tools, in particular, might be of use next year if your team is veering off track.
It’s easy for remote teams to fall into bad habits like working in a vacuum. Collaboration from a distance still feels strange to many and it’s not the natural way we used to communicate with each other. But with working-from-home stretching into 2021, remote workers need alternative ways to bridge the divide and become a more cohesive unit. Be clear and intentional about how you want your team to communicate and set aside time for them to work together. Make sure you have the right tools in place to support collaboration and provide employees with training to improve their skills and be effective in a virtual world. Most importantly, think about the personalities on your team and how they interact with each other. When employees have a better understanding of their team members it’s easier to work together and account for each other’s learning and communication styles. Remote working can certainly make collaboration more difficult but it’s not impossible. When you can’t meet face-to-face, choose the right strategies and communication tools to help your team connect in a remote space. Let’s start the new year off by thinking about how we can come together more effectively instead of working apart.