Teams who are required to collaborate remotely must commit to improving together for the good of the group. Continuous improvement requires an openness to thinking differently about how the work is done.
I didn't think I would miss the small talk.
I'm not a big small-talk guy. But I found when I made the change to remote work that I did miss my interaction with my co-workers. And it wasn't necessarily that I missed hearing the details of people's lives, although I did miss that. What I found was our team did not seem to gel as well as it once did because we didn't have the small social interactions. Those brief opportunities for laughter, conversation, and sometimes even tears, was not available as it was before.
Remote work is a challenge for numerous reasons. But it can be particularly hard for teams. Teams that normally communicate daily, both with informal small talk and formal work communication, must adjust when working remotely. The regular act of “syncing” as a group is still possible, but takes on a different format. Collaboration still occurs in a remote work environment, but in a different way.
And if teams aren't prepared for this change, it can decrease the effectiveness of the team. What was once a great team might feel like they are "writing with the opposite hand" when working remotely.
Even though the format of the work has changed, the definition of a high functioning team doesn't change. High functioning teams are more productive, efficient, and engaged because of their work together. Remote workers who work independently might not notice too much difference between working in an office and working remotely, but for teams, they need each other to achieve their goals.
So, how do high functioning teams work as well, if not better, in a remote setting? Here are some ideas:
High functioning teams care for one another. This sounds overly simplistic but it is very true in my experience. Working as a team is more than just getting a project done, it is about playing to one another's strengths, knowing one another's passions, and helping one another to improve. This happens over time with teams and often happens at the coffee pot in the morning or in the break room at lunch. When working remotely, these, formerly natural opportunities to connect, are not as natural. High functioning teams create a way to replicate this when working remotely. This could be a virtual "happy hour" after work, a morning share out of good news from the weekend, or time of open office hours when people can come and go to meet virtually. There is not a single right answer to this, but great teams will find a way to maintain this important characteristic of collaborative work.
High functioning teams adhere to principles that are agreed upon, but the behavior has to change when working remotely. Their former principles need to be modified to work in a remote setting. Some of this is based on necessity, but some of it is just based on habit. Teams must commit to habits of productivity and stick to them as a group. After six months of remote work, it is highly frustrating for others to not be engaged, not know how to operate the technology, and not follow the norms of the group. Remote teams need to revisit these working agreements often, maybe three or four times a week, for them to become habits that lead to productivity.
High functioning teams allow for flexibility in productivity. Teams must define what flexibility means in a remote setting. When a team member might need to take a break, how do they conduct themselves? If deadlines are not met, how does the team adapt? These are not impossible questions to answer, but remote teams must be intentional on how they approach them. Frequent check-in points are needed for this to be successful. Adjusting goals and timelines is harder when working remotely because the synchronization of the workday is not present. In person, we can pop into the office next door for a quick clarification or agree to stay late to finish a project. All of these things are possible when working remotely, but they might take an extra step or two.
High functioning teams welcome and provide feedback. Some of the best teams I have ever been a part of openly welcome feedback. This can be an area that gets cut short in a remote meeting. When a remote team meets together virtually, there can be a feeling that efficiency is critical because time is short. Teams must be intentional to make sure that feedback is rooted in the collaborative process. A great strategy for high-functioning teams is to embed feedback into part of the collaboration while meeting remotely. Consider the last ten minutes of a meeting being a feedback time and a progress report for the group. By starting and ending with feedback the team will always know where it stands with one another.
For every team, there is a need for continuous improvement. Teams who are required to collaborate remotely must commit to improving together for the good of the group. This requires an openness to thinking differently about how the work is done. Teams that can pivot between remote and in-person work know core principals do not change when making this adjustment. These high functioning teams excel while adapting to a new environment. As this team synergy and growth happens, every member of the group will feel that “syncing” feeling of team success.