Remote working and working from home are not the same thing — but there are key practices to help build a team that works together while working remotely.

There is a big difference between remote work and working from home. Whereas working from home is something many people have been doing while offices are closed, remote working involves an entirely different mindset. While a majority of people have been working from home since March of this year, few of them are actually remote working. But with almost half of companies planning to allow staff to work remotely on a full-time basis when workplaces reopen, it’s something many will need to figure out.

A remote-first culture thrives on the flexibility of team members collaborating productively on projects, even though they may live in clashing time zones. But how do they do it? How do they maintain a “one team” mentality when the members of the team are scattered across the world? They have discovered that working together does not have to mean working in the same place.

Here are some practices to consider adopting in order to keep your team together while they work apart.

Keep everything in the open

Transparency and openness are vital for giving your team a sense of shared purpose, wherever you work. This means that nobody should feel that important issues are being discussed and decided without their knowledge. When people start to feel left out, they become resentful and distrustful, and are less likely to contribute fully. Make responsibilities, expectations, problems and achievements visible to everybody, and trust your team members to manage their own time and participation.

Ensure that everybody affected by a decision is invited to meetings that relate to it. Even if they don’t attend, they feel involved in the process. It is a good idea to add proper descriptions to meeting invites and run through the agenda at the start of the call, so that everybody knows exactly what they are expected to deliver during the meeting. Record meetings so that people who couldn’t attend or want to review how a decision was made can listen back to the recording.

On calls, everybody should have their camera switched on. When everybody is visible on the call, you have a wealth of nonverbal cues you can use to interpret their contribution, even when they say nothing. Whether it’s a nodding or shaking head, a frown, a smile or a shrug, being able to see somebody makes communication far more effective. Keeping the camera on during calls helps to remove ambiguity and ensure that everybody comes away from the meeting with a similar message. When you can see your coworkers on a standup, you feel more comfortable with them, which is key to building trust among the team.

Ensure communication goes beyond vertical

If all you are doing is talking to your boss and those who report to you, you’re not a team: You’re just people who are doing a job together. Reach out in other directions too. By actively promoting participation across a broad range of topics, you create a stronger team dynamic. If you come across a conversation on a company channel (e.g. Slack) that you think might interest a particular person, tag them on it to encourage them to engage.

You can also strengthen participation by encouraging people to perform demos of work in progress at team meetings. There is no need to be afraid of a demo — it’s essentially show-and-tell for adults. Plus, it’s a useful tool for maintaining a sense of joint purpose and can help to encourage collective problem solving.

Make sure everybody’s goals align

For a team to be more than just a group of people, they must be working for something together. It can be more difficult to sustain that sense of shared purpose when you are in a remote environment. The key thing is to ensure that people know what their goals are and how they connect to wider company goals. Remember that physical offices have plenty of scope for promoting the company’s mission and objectives on walls and other spaces. When you work remotely, you have to compensate for that lack of visibility by making a special effort to communicate goals.

A good team is cohesive. While individual goals may differ, they should share a sense of overall purpose. Without such a participative dynamic, people can feel detached and, as with a camera-off culture, they start to lose their sense of belonging to a team.

Team members need to feel invested in their goals, so ensure they are involved in goal-setting and don’t feel as if random, irrelevant targets have been foisted on them. It is a good idea to start or end decision-making by referencing goals to help keep remote team members on the same page.

Demonstrate your awareness of the unique challenges and opportunities of working remotely by setting targets that complement this way of working. For example, consider introducing flexibility in the way work is delivered, so that people work at a time that suits them rather than the traditional 9-to-5. Don’t become fixated on time-based goals, such as endlessly logging hours. Instead, focus on real, measurable achievements.

Celebrate your people

To be effective, a team must feel connected. One way to foster this is to celebrate achievements publicly. Don’t let good work go unrecognised — be sure to acknowledge successes on your team calls, in emails and through other communication channels. When people work remotely, it can be hard to avoid feelings of isolation. It’s easy to feel like you’re toiling away on your own and nobody cares. 

Cultivate a unique culture for your team by celebrating together. Think of how you would celebrate a special occasion in person, and adapt it to the remote environment. It could be as simple as meeting up for Friday drinks via Zoom or a team quiz (with prizes!).

Keep those water cooler moments going

One of the most difficult things to replicate in a remote environment are those chance encounters with colleagues at the coffee machine or in the canteen. These casual meetings don’t set the world alight; you may not discuss anything more groundbreaking than your plans for the weekend. But these seemingly inconsequential chats help to reinforce your feeling of belonging to a team. Fortunately, you can help recreate the effect with remote water cooler sessions. At NearForm, we host regular water coolers, giving people who might not get a chance to talk to each other during the course of their work the opportunity to chat informally on a more personal level.

Our team members are also active on Slack, and we have set up a whole range of channels where members can discuss everything from gardening to pets. Something to be aware of on messaging channels is the tone of your communications: Without non-verbal cues and with language sometimes acting as a barrier, a seemingly harmless comment can be interpreted negatively. Use emojis to convey good intentions if there is any room for misinterpretation.

Promote constructive communication

Do you find that much of your contact with your team members is to point out things that need fixing? This common practice can be helped by developing a culture of communication that facilitates positive and negative feedback and everything in between. This can be challenging in a remote context, but if you only contact an employee to criticise their work, they will quickly start to feel demoralised.

Check in regularly via Slack, email or video call to maintain your connection with the team and mitigate common feedback issues. Lead by example: Model the communication you would like to see in your coworkers by being active on public channels yourself.

Ensure that your team members know that communication is a two-way thing and that they can ask anything of you or another team member without being made to feel silly or lacking. When everybody knows that the channels of communication are open for all sorts of information delivery, they will be more likely to take constructive criticism in the spirit it was intended.

Organise in-person meetings

It may sound counterintuitive, but in-person meetings are a great way to maintain a one-team mentality when you all work remotely. Where possible, arrange for training, conferences, team-building exercises and social meetups to reinforce the sense of togetherness and cohesiveness you’ve been fostering with your considered approach to remote working. We’re not talking about weekly trips to the office here: These in-person engagements should be seen as a break from the norm — a quarterly or annual highlight that gives the team a lift.

Maintaining a one team mentality in a remote environment is highly achievable, but it won’t come about by accident. You need to envision it, nurture it, facilitate it — and, yes, sometimes you need to push to make it happen. Your team may not be together in the same room, but when you work to develop a transparent, open culture where people trust each other and feel valued, you can develop togetherness.

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