Avoiding the #Remote Island
It’s a new age! More and more companies are going digital and almost everything we do during our 9 to 5 is being done, online - from the apps we’re using to communicate with colleagues, how our information and data is stored or tracked, and even how we’re meeting with our most valued clients. Most companies I’ve worked for in the past have been resistant about remote work. The status to work remote is typically earned after years of service and showing commitment along with great work ethic. Or it depends on your job function. As a Business Development Manager, for example, 75% of my job was on the road.
When I was interviewing at my first startup, we were very small. It was a time where we all fit neatly inside of one office and the company had a very homey feel. But I was living in San Diego, enjoying idyllic millennial luxuries like driving to any grocery store and finding parking in at least the first 5 rows. I had left the bustling city life years before the tech boom to enjoy a town by the beach with a lot more than 7x7 mile space. Moving back, while still an option, was not something I really wanted. I approached the topic of working remote in my second or third round interview with our founders. They agreed to pilot the remote program and I was ecstatic, not realizing that we’d have a lot of work to do to actually distribute our team and prevent colleagues from getting “islanded.”
Island (verb): a form of FOMO where you feel super disconnected from your team.
This happened a lot in our first months. I remember conference calls where everyone was crammed into our largest conference room, talking loudly and all at once (It was a very exciting time for our company!) and me, on the screen of someone’s laptop, tucked in a corner, perpetually on mute. We’ve come a long way since then, supporting a team of over 30 people all over the world - from down under to across the pond. We’ve got someone in pretty much every time zone and we’ve adapted to distributed teams and make conscious efforts to improve.
Here are some tips that I hope you’ll find helpful if you’re either thinking of setting up a distributed team, or need some guidance on supporting your islanded folks a little better:
Use The Best Tools:
Most non-remote companies use an instant messenger to communicate quietly with colleagues but have the luxury of also walking up to someone's desk for a quick chat or meeting by the water cooler to talk about the weekend's adventures. For remote people, the primary way to communicate will likely happen through instant messaging so it's better to implement a really good tool, not just GChat. To mimic walking up to someone’s desk, we implemented Slack to create a “virtual office” feel. On Slack, you’re able to create different channels to discuss various things (#MarchMaddness, #Random, #Remote). Channels can be created at random to discuss projects, or just from random fun like the #Dogs channel which featured daily daww-worthy shots of our favorite four-legged furballs. Messages are searchable and they offer a lot of add-on tools that help with polling, submitting anonymous questions, or providing daily stand-up updates.
Implement Meetings Best Practice:
You want to set up ground rules on meetings in general so that it’s an efficient use of everyone’s time. Meetings are especially hard for remote teams to be involved with so ensuring that they have been given the floor to speak up is important, especially if a number of people are on site in one large conference room. I recommend always turning to the remote colleagues for any comments before moving onto next topics. Setting an agenda beforehand also helps everyone (not sure remote peeps) prepare for discussion. You can find more tips to creating great meeting culture that help remote employees, here.
Usually these are reserved to just your manager but I highly recommend setting these up weekly with your teammates as well. A few times a month, I'd even add other cross functional team mates that you have to work with. You’ve gotta make room for small talk and chit-chat instead of just strictly business. 1-on-1's can be useful to just talk about a project you’re working on together, & blow off steam about anything frustrating about the process or even just learn something new about your teammates, like the time they spent living in a yoga commune. All of these help to build relationship with your teams and rapport with not just your manager but people you may collaborate with.
Your company should always extend the opportunity for real face time with the rest of the team. Usually once per quarter or at least twice a year is a good amount of time to let your colleagues know you’re a living, breathing & fun person. Our team organized biannual retreats that were always fun because everyone came "home" and it livened everyone up. While I work best in the quiet of my home, in-office time with my colleagues helps me recharge and reinvigorate belief in our mission that can have lasting effects for weeks.
Either your People’s Ops person or another dedicated individual should host a quarterly check-in with the remote team members. You not only learn a lot about what the vibe has been like for remote employees but you can use this time to get their input on new solutions to keep remote folks engaged. We held one of these earlier this year, not only did it help the remote team connect with other remote folks that they often don’t see but it also helped us work together to identify problems and come up with solutions.
The tools here are not always one size fits all. Every company is different in terms of their remote team's size, function, or locale. Language barriers and time differences can add additional layers of complexity to working remote. To truly find the best ways to improve your company's remote culture, the best thing you can do is really talk to your remote teams. Check in to see what they’ve been struggling with and work together to implement better practices. It's not only team building but can help future remote colleagues jump right into a great remote culture. I’d love to hear about what new practices or methods you’ve come up with or use in your distributed teams so definitely email me!