Remote skeptics are dwindling in number, but that doesn’t mean we have remote work figured out yet.
A recurring challenge is collaboration. An in-person office has some real advantages when it comes to teamwork. Leaning across a desk or poking your head above a cubicle is easy. Managers can call a meeting and file all relevant team members into a conference room in minutes.
Distance doesn’t make teamwork impossible. It just means you might need to be a little more creative with your resources and a little more deliberate with your principles. At iDoneThis, we’ve written numerous times about how core psychological and motivational principles can improve your approach to remote work.
Here, we’re sharing 7 lectures about work and collaboration from the venerable folks at TED. Along the way, we’ll pull out some of the best insights these TED talks on teamwork can provide remote managers and workers.
1. Find innovation in the race against obsolescence
The future of work is a tense topic. Many fear that robots and artificial intelligence will soon be invading our offices and stealing our jobs. As it turns out, however, the history of automation extends much longer than these recent changes.
In this Ted Talk, Erik Brynjolfsson argues that we’re going through the “growing pains” of a transforming economy. Growth, innovation, and engaging work are all still possible if we think of computers as teammates instead of enemies.
Remote insight: We need new metrics.
According to Brynjolfsson, this age is more about the production of knowledge than the production of physical goods. As a consequence: “That creates a problem for standard metrics, because we’re getting more and more stuff for free, like Wikipedia, Google, Skype, and if they post it on the web, even this TED Talk.”
Remote workers benefit from these trends, but remote managers need to remain skeptical of standard metrics. Time spent might not correlate with growth like we once assumed. Once away from an office, maybe your employees get more done in less time?
2. Make fairness part of your culture
In this Ted Talk, Marco Alverà argues that companies should be thinking more about unfairness. Though it might seem like an exclusively personal issue, the perception of being treated unfairly can cause employees to feel defensive and disengaged. Alverà shows that a majority of American workers are already disengaged, which costs companies hundreds of billions of dollars in cumulative inefficiencies.
Humans, according to Alverà, have an innate sense of fairness. If companies can create cultures that value employees for who they and what they’re trying to do—not when they necessarily accomplish it in a short time span—then you can encourage much more comfort and creativity.
Remote insight: Encourage open lines of communication.
When your company is remote, it’s harder to encourage employees to speak openly. In the office, you might notice a frown and start a conversation. On Slack, someone can convince you everything is fine with a few emojis.
To ensure remote employees feel they work in a fair environment, you have to take extra steps. As Alverà says, “[T]his is the definition of fairness. It’s when you can lower those unfairness antennae, put them at rest. Then great things follow.” With the right mix of tools and regular encouragement to share, you can help employees open up about perceived unfairness so that you can actually solve those problems.
3. Don’t forget the introverts
In what has become one of Ted’s most famous lectures, Susan Cain argues that introverts have more value to offer than they typically get credit for. In an extrovert-focused world, we tend instead to focus on your ability to be social, outgoing, and gregarious above all else.
At work, this bias might result in introverts receiving few promotions, despite the carefulness introversion tends to offer. Extroverts, despite their relative energies, can sometimes take too many risks or get so excited about their own ideas that they don’t let other ideas emerge.
Remote insight: Make proactive communication normal.
Introverts are going to be tempted to remain silent. Since they tend to excel working alone, they might resist sharing problems they’re having, thinking instead that they’re doing a favor for everyone by keeping it quiet. As a remote manager, you have to support a culture that makes it normal to raise problems.
You can do this by praising people for being proactive about collaboration, not just handling it on their own. The more you can make your employees’ workflows transparent to each other, the more introverts might realize they need to open up sometimes. Similarly, you can also show extroverts that too much communication can sometimes get in the way of deep work.
4. Source creativity from everyone
Too often, companies relegate creative work to “creatives,” such as marketers and developers. It’s surprisingly common to assume that your accountants, HR, and other staff have nothing else to offer besides the completion of their daily tasks. In this Ted Talk, Linda Hill presents some of her research studying the world’s most creative companies.
According to Hill, unlocking company-wide creativity isn’t about having and executing a mission. Innovation, in Hill’s words, is a “paradox.” As a manager, you need to unleash creativity but at the same time, you need to shape it toward productive work. For Hill, the key is encouraging trial and error. The best work, like the most groundbreaking scientific results, only occurs with experimentation.
Remote insight: Embrace failure.
It’s easy for shame to fester at a remote company. As a manager, a one-off correction could upset an employee without you realizing it. Their experiment might have yielded huge benefits, but without the right culture, that employee might focus exclusively on the failure.
To combat this, highlight the entire experimentation process. When you publicly praise employees or share company-wide wins, tell the whole story: the mistakes made along the way, the wrong turns, the lessons made from failure, and the ultimate success.
5. Make work a collaborative adventure
In this incredible Ted Talk on teamwork, Pardis Sabeti shares the story of how her team sequenced the genome of the Ebola virus. In an uncommon move, Sabeti published all her research online and encouraged scientists across the world to learn from her and add their own research and insights.
According to Sabeti, this open teamwork, this asynchronous collaboration, was essential to understanding and stopping the virus—and preparing them to attack the next one.
Remote insight: Make documentation an opportunity.
Documentation isn’t the most exciting part of your company. It likely isn’t even one of your most exciting tools. But with a tool like Tettra, for instance, you can make it easier for employees to share knowledge and empower each other.
Your employees are always generating knowledge through failures and successes. Rather than let that information dissipate, encourage them to document what they do and share it with the team.
6. Harness the teamwork instinct
We’re entering an era focused on relationships and the market for tools that serve that need has exploded. In this teamwork Ted Talk, Howard Rheingold discusses how media and collective action actually signal a worldwide change.
Rheingold recontextualizes human and natural history, arguing that our evolution is as much about collaboration as competition. Via the history of technology and game theory, Rheingold demonstrates that collaboration is an essential part of our past and will play an outsized role in our future development.
Remote insight: Build a shared vision.
According to Rheingold, one of the first events that inspired human collaboration was the need to hunt prey that needed more effort than one hunter could offer. At work, you can encourage a similar precipitating challenge by contextualizing the roles your employees play in the larger company mission.
When you work remote, an inspiring speech might not be as practical, but you can instead write blog posts and internal documents that regularly reference the goals your company seeks. When you give your employees feedback, tie your praise and criticism to those larger goals.
7. Resist the micromanagement temptation
Entrepreneur Chieh Huang, in this Ted Talk on teamwork, or really, the enemy of it, shows why managers feel the temptation to micromanage. According to Huang, research shows micromanagement tends to exhaust and stress rather than inspire and motivate. But this reality doesn’t allay the desire to do it anyway.
Huang argues that as employees get higher positions, they begin to feel like they’re losing control over the work they previously did. The core of that temptation creates a feedback loop that managers have to unravel. Only when you enable your employees to do the work will you discover they have ideas that sometimes even surpass your own.
Remote insight: Working remote doesn’t fix your problems.
As a manager, you might assume remote work frees you from the danger of micromanaging. Of course, in-person managers are tempted to ask what’s going on as they walk by—but why would you bother to interrupt someone with a Slack message unless it was urgent? But in fact, remote managers are just as capable of micromanaging.
The physical distance can make you more tempted to check in and the seeming unobtrusiveness of a Slack ping makes it seem all too easy. Instead, reflect on what you really want from your team, and what you really want to be doing as a manager, and maybe give them a little more freedom.
What other teamwork Ted Talks have inspired you? If we missed any, let us know in the comments!
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