Leadership & Management

How to Keep Your Remote Team Connected

By John Estafanous

ceo & founder, RallyBright

March 12, 2020

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For the foreseeable future, it’s likely that many of us will be cutting out nonessential travel as we’re increasingly encouraged to help “flatten the curve” of new COVID-19 cases. We’re already seeing trade shows, conferences and other large offsite business gatherings canceled or postponed. We don’t know what’s going to happen, but it seems likely that there will be continued disruption to the economy and business as usual for a while.

If you lead a team, what does this mean for you and your team?

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For onsite and remote teams alike, offsite gatherings are important times for team members to spend some intensive in-person time together building camaraderie and deepening their connections. Team connection isn’t just a nice-to-have, either. It’s a key ingredient of the team resilience that drives long-term success among teams. Connected team members are engaged and care about the wellbeing of the team as a whole. They also trust one another and are good at navigating through conflict. All of these attributes propel teams to achieve more than their less connected peers.

While our core team members have all spent face time with one another, we’re an all-remote team here at RallyBright. As such, we have some experience optimizing for remote teamwork. Whether your team is remote already – or suddenly remote due to coronavirus concerns – here are six best practices we try to follow ourselves that can help you keep your team connected no matter where you’re all working.

Set and maintain a clear direction for your remote team

One of the biggest challenges we see for all teams, remote or not, is the absence of a clear and shared direction. If you asked everyone on the team what the purpose of the team is, would you get a consistent response? Your team should know its priorities as a team and what it is driving toward as a unit. Communicating and clarifying this over and over is valuable to all teams, but remember that on remote teams you won’t always have the daily contact that underscores that purpose. If you’re talking about direction more than you think you should be, it’s probably the right amount.

Have at least one weekly all-team call

Ideally these should be standing weekly calls at the same time every week, and you should make a strong effort to keep them. It’s easy for busy teams to lapse into meetings only when a member feels they’re needed or to move a specific project forward. The problem with this approach, however, is that there will always be team members who will shy away from asking questions or seeking input or help they need without the forum of a meeting.

For these calls, have a set structure and follow different “rules of the road” from in-person meetings. If you manage other managers, work with them to reach a common understanding of how to run these types of meetings. (E.g., being “present” is even more important in these settings). Have clear expectations and norms for how the meetings will be conducted. For example, participants shouldn’t be commuting if possible, or writing emails or browsing if they are in front of their computers.

You may be tempted to think your team can do most everything with group chat tools like Slack or Google Hangouts. That’s a mistake. True, these tools are indispensable for teams, but they shouldn’t replace calls. It’s easy to miscommunicate over chat. Plus, its asynchronous nature means it can be difficult to finish a conversation or come to a joint decision. Even worse, with limited context certain words or phrases could also be misinterpreted and lead to conflict (more on that below).

So try not to be too busy for a team meeting. Furthermore, to make sure everyone participates, structure part of the meeting as a round-robin. Then each team member can pipe in with what they’re working on and ask for suggestions or help. Team members who have no idea what their colleagues are working on can lose sight of the team’s shared purpose, which dampens morale.

Make your calls video calls as much as possible

If you regularly use video calls you already know how different they feel from voice-only calls. Without video, you miss the facial expressions and body language that form a large part of human communication. Furthermore, eye contact during conversations is a reflection of engagement, and builds trust. It’s less likely that your attention will stray to your phone or other distraction when you’re on a video call. (In this way, I think video calls often have an advantage over in-person meetings).

While the vast majority of Millennial and Gen Z workers – who are “digital natives” – will be comfortable with video, your Gen X and Boomer colleagues might be more reticent to use video technology without some urging. So lead by example with your team and embrace video. You can even gently request video participation. Once your teammates are over the adoption hurdle and experience the advantages of video, they’ll adjust.

In short, if you as a leader are present, if team members feel psychologically safe, and if expectations are clear, these meetings can rock.

Use frequent surveys to monitor remote team morale

If you’re not sharing an office with colleagues every day, it can be more difficult to know if their engagement is drifting or what might be going on in their out-of-work lives and how it impacts their work. We recommend that our customers pulse out surveys at least once a quarter to measure team promoter scores. (Team promoter scores are a proxy for depth of engagement and trust levels within a team.) For remote-first or all-remote teams, monthly or every other month is not too frequent.

Set team OKRs as well as individual OKRs

In today’s organizations, teams – not individuals – are the de facto operating units that drive business impact and results. The way you talk about your objectives and key results should reflect this. Set goals that depend on teamwork for your remote team.

Address conflicts before they spiral

How can you do this? By paying attention to the interpersonal behavior on your team. Sometimes colleagues just rub each other the wrong way and the best idea is to avoid putting them on joint projects, if possible. Notice, too, if team members seem reticent to ask for help, uncomfortable speaking their minds, or passive-aggressive. In these cases, your team may need help handling conflict productively.

Whether remote work is a temporary or permanent situation for your team, as a trend it’s here to stay. According to recent data from Flexjobs (presented at a Board of Trade meeting I attended this week), nearly half of all workers in the U.S. work remotely at least some of the time, and 41 percent of global businesses say they offer some degree of remote work. What’s more, the option of remote work is hugely appealing to today’s job seekers, boosting their wellbeing and also substantially lowering absenteeism and turnover costs to their employers. When remote teamwork is done right, everyone wins.

Do you have a favorite tip for keeping your remote team connected? I’d love to hear about it at john@rallybright.com.

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