Working remotely requires a totally different approach from how we’ve come to define our workday. We’re so used to the commutes, having to deal with our cubicle neighbor, the water cooler chats, and shuffling in and out of meetings. That’s the way we know how to get stuff done. Removed from shared physical spaces, remote teams have none of that.
The physical workspace — from layout to furniture configurations to break-room — create a certain working environment that affects how you communicate and collaborate. Without those traditional areas in play, remote teams face a tougher challenge of figuring out how to work together, simply because there’s no conventional wisdom to lean on, no way to bump into someone on your way to the bathroom, no coffee break to take together.
But necessity is the mother of invention, and that’s why the most successful remote teams are reinventing how to work together with methods you might consider extreme or crazy.
1. Total transparency about yourself with your remote team
Do you know exactly how much your co-workers making, how much sleep they’re getting, or their self-improvement goals? Exchanging that amount of information sounds intrusive, but it’s what the distributed employees at Buffer share every day with each other.
Just by virtue of being co-located and literally sitting by your teammates, you become privy to an incredible amount of information about them — who they are as people and what challenges and frustrates them — that adds up day after day. While those details may seem trivial, that richness of context breeds trust.
Remote teams gain none of that contextual information because they are scattered across different locations and time zones. That’s why Buffer co-founders Joel Gascoigne and Leo Widrich made such a conscious choice to inject personal context into its team — so much so that they made extreme transparency a fundamental value in their company.
For example, every Buffer employee receives a Jawbone UP wristband that tracks how you’re sleeping and shares that with the team. They also use our productivity app, iDoneThis. Every day, everyone at Buffer logs their accomplishments and what they’re working on — and just as if they bumped into each other in the kitchen, interact with each other by commenting and asking questions about what they’re up to.
2. Leave your webcam on all day
Tapping someone on the shoulder to talk feels easy. Yet spontaneously Skyping your colleague feels like a major intrusion, instead requiring a formal calendar invite. Since mutual scheduling is a major pain, that often means I let opportunities for virtual face-to-face moments with my colleagues go by when I’m working remotely.
When the New York-based Foursquare opened its San Francisco office, they deliberately took a drastic step to ensure sure their teams on opposite coasts would stay connected instead of having the odd, scheduled videochat. So they put a twist on the traditional idea of videoconferencing to create something that they call “The Portal.”
While most videoconferencing is used in preplanned meetings in separate conference rooms, the Foursquare team devised The Portal as a video system that was always on and running in the primary work area, rather than in a little-used room, providing a window into each office.
You can walk up to The Portal in San Francisco and wave good morning to your colleague in New York and start a spontaneous conversation. Daily standups take place in front of The Portal, bypassing all the annoying problems that pop up when trying to set up a group video call.
For remote teams without a Foursquare-sized budget, there’s Sqwiggle, an always-on video chat system that works pretty much like The Portal while requiring only your webcam and monitor instead of expensive Cisco videoconferencing equipment. This provides a persistent, passive view of your colleagues that makes you feel like you’re in the same room, working together at the same table.
3. Replace physical space with software — lots of it
When you work on a remote team, you lose the primary way you’ve communicated with people your whole life: face-to-face conversations. Without this kind of interaction, communication often deteriorates, creating inefficiencies, missed emotional context, not to mention, loneliness and disengagement.
Laura Roeder, founder of LKR Social Media, manages her distributed team by adopting an extreme policy that resulted from realizing a crucial distinction between how communication happens on remote versus co-located teams.
Just because a remote team can’t take advantage of the communication benefits of sharing physical space doesn’t mean they don’t have options. Instead, technology becomes that shared space. A company could have a room for desks, a kitchen, conference room, and a break room — all kinds of physical spaces to catalyze different types of employee interaction. Similarly, a remote team can use a varied range of technological conversation channels.
Rather than be like some companies that only use email, at LKR Social Media they use six times as many tools. They use Hipchat for work-related chat and water cooler conversation, iDoneThis to keep everyone in the loop on work status, Google Hangout for weekly Monday meetings, UberConference for quick conference calls, Confluence as an internal Wiki, and Wrike for structured conversation about projects.
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To Wade Foster, co-founder and CEO of Zapier, one of the most powerful mental advantages of having a remote team is that you take nothing for granted.
When you have a co-located team, you can get lulled into a false sense of security about how well your team is communicating. When you’re remote, the challenges are big, hairy, and in your face, so you have to be explicit about how you’re going to work together and tackle those challenges head on.
What you end up with may be unconventional and extreme, but the proof is in how it empowers your team to get stuff done and with all of the autonomy that remote work enables.