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 interacting 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 day to day social interactions. Those brief opportunities for laughter, conversation, and sometimes even tears, were not available like they were before.
Remote work is challenging for numerous reasons, but it can be particularly challenging 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 an entirely different format; collaboration still occurs, but in a different way.
If teams aren't prepared for this change, it can quickly decrease the effectiveness of the team. What was once a great team might feel like "writing with the opposite hand" when working remotely.
Although the format and logistics of the work itself has changed, the definition of a high functioning team has not. High functioning teams are productive, efficient, and engaged largely because of their work together. Remote workers working independently might not notice 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 a few ideas:
High functioning teams care for one another. This sounds overly simplistic but it is very true. 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 improve. This happens over time, 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 remote teams create a way to replicate connection opportunities. This could be a virtual "happy hour" after work, a morning share out of good news from the weekend, or a designated time of open office hours when people can come and go to meet virtually. There is not a single right answer, but great teams will find a way to maintain this important characteristic of collaborative work.
High functioning teams adhere to agreed upon principles, but the behavior has to change when working remotely. Former principles need to be modified to work in a remote setting. Some modifications are based on necessity, but some are just based on needing to change habits. 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 react and adapt? These are not impossible questions to answer, but remote teams must be intentional with 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 still possible when working remotely, but might require an extra step or two.
High functioning teams welcome and provide feedback. Encouraging and supporting team feedback is an area that can often get 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 that 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 work is done. Teams that can successfully pivot between remote and in-person work know and understand that core principles do not change when making this adjustment. These high functioning teams excel while adapting to a new environment. As team synergy and growth evolves, every member will feel that “syncing” feeling of team success.