At Digital Mums we all work 100% remotely. So we know a thing or two about collaborating with colleagues that aren't in the same place. While we are a huge advocate of remote working it can also throw up additional challenges, particularly if you've not really done it before and it hasn't been planned well. As you can imagine we have a lot of learnings about the things that work and the things that don't work when collaborating with colleagues remotely, so we're sharing our top tips.
1. Use the right software.
To work effectively you are going to need the right tech and tools. You will need the following:
- Software for virtual meetings. Whether you use Slack video calls, Skype, Google Hangouts or Zoom, you are going to need some face to face time at key points. You can use phone conferencing but being able to see people is better. It’s better if this software enables you to share screens as this is a useful feature.
- Software to communicate. Email isn't great for this in our opinion, it has major limitations. Tools like Slack or MS Teams are much better so if you aren't using these tools yet now could be a great time to set them up. They are much better than email for collaborative communication. Conversations are much more fluid and work better in real-time. These tools replace much more the ‘tap on the shoulder’ questions you get in the office and they facilitate better and quicker conversations and resolutions of issues. They can also replace those water-cooler moments that you would have with colleagues in an office that don’t work so well on email.
- A collaborative project management tool. You need some tech to organise and structure your work, assign tasks etc. Our favourite tool is Trello but we really like the look of Monday.com which is also great for managing teams if you're a line manager and need a better line of sight over your team tasks.
- Collaborative document software. whether it’s slides, documents or spreadsheets you will need to work together on some outputs so whether it’s Microsoft 365 or Google Suite it doesn’t matter as long as it’s cloud based and is easy for multiple people to work on the same version
2. Make the most of your meetings
When everyone is working remotely you tend to have less meetings. So use this time together wisely as it won’t happen as often.
Firstly, it's crucial that people are prepared for the meeting. Because you're likely to have less face to face time you don't want to waste any of this time catching people up. Make sure everyone has done any pre-reading in advance so time isn’t wasted.
Secondly, really think about whether a meeting is needed. While remote working is great, and issues can be resolved simply through Slack conversations, there are definitely some instances where face to face time has its advantages. These include:
- Brainstorming ideas.
- Debating and agreeing complex decisions.
- Handling anything sensitive or giving negative feedback.
- Finalising outputs.
Before having a face to face virtual meeting consider whether it's really needed, but if it falls into the above 4 categories it probably is but don’t waste time on things that you could easily do in Slack in between meetings.
3. Communicate more cleverly
You take things for granted when you meet people in real life. It’s much easier and quicker to build relationships. When you’re with someone in a room there is rich communication that you take for granted - facial expressions, body language etc. You can give someone a nurturing arm rub or pick up on tense body language and act accordingly. These become trickier when you work remotely and only meet online. There are some things you can do to help with this.
Using emojis and gifs might seem silly but actually these visual methods of communication are excellent at replacing those in-the-room cues. Use them to convey confusion, happiness, etc.
Even if you can see someone on a virtual meeting it’s still hard to read facial expressions and body language so you can verbalise these. “I’ve got a bit of a confused face over here Kathryn what exactly did you mean when you said x I just want to make sure I 100% understand?”. It’s also a great idea to reward participation by verbally acknowledging people more because, again, this is harder when people aren’t together they need more of a confidence boost and a pat on the back.
Those sneaky office politics that are bad enough when everyone is in the same room can also be also be magnified when the team are working remotely on projects. You can also get people on the team that don’t believe remote working can work. Right at the start, be smart about addressing these. Ask everyone on the team to share issues or concerns they have about the project and managing to meet the goals. Make it clear there is no agenda and it’s a safe space to share. Get people to be truthful but tactful. Once you have the information try and use it to your advantage. If someone has put forward lots of negativity about their belief in the project working get them to play the role of always having to come up with positive ways forward when things get stuck!
5. Give yourself a bit more time to accomplish your goal
When working in remote teams, particularly if many team members are part-time, things always takes longer. Meetings in particular should be scheduled for a little longer than in-person meetings. Take into account it’s always more challenging to get everyone together so there can be delays with organising sessions as well. It’s best to set meetings as far in advance as possible. At the start map out realistic goals and map out goals for each working session as well.
To avoid derailing working sessions it’s a great idea to schedule some catch up team hangouts where you can just catch up, chat and have some banter. It’s great for team bonding and will help build good working relationships as well as save your work sessions from being hijacked with chat about people’s weekends. So build in time for this as well. Whether they happen over lunchtime or coffee time just make sure everyone knows how to access a 'digital coffee break'. We find that jumping on virtual meeting software over lunch can work really well.
5. Assign clear roles and responsibilities
You can help manage the above complexities, and mitigated likely problems, by dispersing roles and responsibilities.
When collaborating in remote teams it can be a bit like herding cats, particularly when different people are online at different times. In our opinion, it's not enough to have a single project manager or lead, which is traditionally considered the norm. When everyone is working remotely it can be a struggle for them to manage everything. When in remote working sessions some people start zoning out in ways they don’t in face to face meetings, or start chatting more than normal because they're not in the office, for example.
Assigning roles to different people in your virtual meetings can help. The following roles can work well:
- The host. It's even more important to have a clear meeting lead than with meetings offline.
- The timekeeper. Because you tend to meet less often, and because people can start feeling a bit disconnected, meetings can turn into a bit of a chatfest so strict timekeeping is important, delegate this to someone to really push things long.
- The facilitator. Virtual meetings are more complex so having a designated facilitator can help. Their role is to do things like monitor faces and body language more actively to check in as to whether people have understood and asking them to play back/summarise or to bring in people that are quiet or to check in with people that look stressed.
- The scribe to take notes, summarise decisions and share actions from virtual meetings. This often happens in offline meetings but it's even more important for them to play back and summarise decisions because virtual meetings are often a bit more challenging and less frequent. This role can be rotated.
Our recommendation is to also disperse some of the responsibilities outside of meetings to give people clear roles and responsibilities that delegate some project management elements to everyone on the team. These are some roles that can be delegated:
- An overall project sponsor that’s a senior team member that has enough seniority to be able to break stalemates that can occur in the project.
- A designated tech lead who can support if people have issues with the software you are using and to share tips on how to get the most out of the tools/pick up if people aren’t using them effectively.
- Someone responsible for documents, logging version control and filing in the correct place.
So these are our top tips for collaborative working, why not share your top tips with us via Twitter.