Five Strategies for Acing Remote Collaboration
Many of my colleagues are now sharing tight quarters with spouses or roommates. They’re taking Zoom calls from their dining room table or master bedroom. Pets and kids make frequent appearances, looking for affection and snacks. And while my coworkers here at Deem are making the best of the situation, it’s made it painfully obvious that collaborating remotely, especially when it’s out of your normal routine, brings a number of challenges to the workday. The novel coronavirus pandemic and subsequent shutdown thrust many employees into less-than-ideal work arrangements.
Even the Harvard Business Review admits that when teams become more virtual, cooperation and collaboration declines unless employees make a conscious effort to foster a collaborative culture.
Why collaborate in the first place?
“When you need to innovate, you need collaboration.
— Marissa Mayer, technology executive
According to Kellogg Insight, working with people who have different perspectives or areas of expertise can result in better ideas and outcomes. Much of our daily work requires joint decision making, delegation, coordination, and problem solving. And while solo work is still important, the leaps in innovation and light-bulb moments are more likely to happen when we work together as a team. But given almost all of us are now working from home, how do we foster those fruitful collaborations?
Moving teams to virtual work creates a number of challenges to effective collaboration. A recent INSEAD study of more than 275 managers reported a lack of clarity about their team’s role in the leadership agenda, decreased interpersonal connections due to remote work, low motivation, and overwhelming workloads.
As a team manager myself, I can testify to an overloaded calendar, to video conference fatigue and a deluge of Slack messages. There are days when I plow through my tasks but still feel my teaming efforts lack their usual lustre. If you feel the same way, there are strategies you can employ to get yourself back on track.
How to build virtual collaboration efficacy
1. Work on a schedule
Develop rituals and have a disciplined way of managing the day, including your collaboration time. Schedule a start and an end time to your day. Have a rhythm. I block off two hours in the morning for concentrated work and book all my meetings in the afternoon. When it’s time to work on a team project, I shut down all my other items, I close my phone and silence my slack notifications. Team collaboration deserves and requires my full attention.
2. Communicate clearly
Unclear communication is a top collaboration challenge for everyone. Don’t assume that others understand your cues and shorthand. Slow down and take the time to communicate and be ultra clear, no matter the medium.
For me, that means summarizing points discussed, outlining any action items and asking for understanding and commitments from my collaborators. I’m also obsessive about taking notes and creating task lists in Google Docs that the team can access to stay current.
3. Establish a process
Now that you’re working remotely, it’s no longer possible to pop over to your colleagues desk to ask a question. The obvious alternative is to ping them on Slack. But if your teammate is in a meeting or absorbed in “heads-down work,” you might not get your answer within the necessary time frame.
As a team, negotiate the communication processes that work for everyone, whether it’s via messaging apps, email, or video conferencing. Bombarding your colleagues with messages on multiple channels can feel like harassment and won’t necessarily get you the responses you need.
4. Be predictable
While we creative types tend to regard predictability as a defect, few qualities are more sought after at work, especially in virtual collaborations. We are all unique, but our consistent behaviors help others predict what we do and understand what we mean.
You can make this easier for your coworkers by establishing a clear personal etiquette and sticking to it consistently. You don’t want your manager second-guessing a brusque email exchange or a colleague misinterpreting an instant message. If the project at hand is difficult to explain or requires debate, then email is probably not the best channel. For example, at Deem we use video conference for deeper discussions, email for detailed follow-up, and Slack for quick questions and answers, and FYI updates.
5. Create spaces for sharing personal stories and opinions
Creating virtual spaces and rituals for celebrations and socializing can strengthen relationships and lay the foundation for future collaboration.
At Deem, we host regular all-hands meetings via Zoom where employees can share ideas and advice. We hosted a series of virtual events to celebrate Pride month. The team regularly meets for virtual happy hours and trivia. To keep my team connected we host a weekly session of Codenames - a word-association game. It’s a quick 30 minutes and gives everyone the chance to chat, have some fun and then get back to their day.
Keep collaboration intentional
Collaboration is a key ingredient in the success of teams and companies. Working together fosters new ideas and breakthrough innovation, it drives the overall success of an organization. But it clearly requires care and feeding in our new virtual environments. As employees and teammates, we all have to practice the art of collaboration. Communicating clearly, creating schedules and process, and being predictable are all ways we can improve our outcomes. And don’t forget to take the time to connect with your colleagues, to celebrate successes, and acknowledge the things happening in their lives and the world. You might be surprised at the ideas and innovation it sparks in your own organization.