BlogManagement

How Remote Teams Stay Sane: 17 Tips for a Pants-Optional Workplace

There's more to managing remote workers than paying for high-speed internet and reminding them to shower before client meetings.

Ben Jackson
January 22, 2018

Photo credit: Ryan Forsythe

Like space travel and scuba diving, remote work is one of those uniquely modern activities that boldly defies human limits. Face-to-face interaction is hard-wired into us from birth, and our brains weren’t built to function well over a high-latency webcam.

At the same time, for companies at scale, remote work is both inevitable and, when managed well, a killer competitive advantage. Here’s how to build a distributed team that’s happy, engaged, and that gets shit done.

Communication

Spend Time in the Same Place

Rule #1: Remote teams only work when they don’t spend 100% of their time working remotely. Teams consist of individual relationships, and relationships thrive on face-to-face interaction. Spend money flying people in for all-hands meetings and team-building activities.

Remind people to pick up the phone when things get hairy.

Encourage Thoughtful, Deliberate Communication

Lots of communication over chat can lead to frequent misunderstandings. Encourage everyone to slow down, think before they type, and read long messages twice before sending them. Conflict should be worked out over the phone or a video chat—never in writing, and definitely not in front of other team members.

Ask Leaders to Frequently Communicate Vision and Priorities

It’s easy for remote workers to become disconnected from the wider organizational strategy. Without context, they can quickly end up working in silos with conflicting priorities, leading to conflict and wasted time.

As one employee stressed during a field interview: “If you don’t understand why you’re doing something, it’s harder to see problems with the way it’s done.” Explain to leadership the importance of leading with intent and communicating to employees just the “what” or “how”, but the “why” behind processes and decisions.

Document Everything

Remote workers don’t have the luxury of asking the person next door. If you don’t have a user-friendly, clearly organized wiki, you should set one up (Notion is a great option).

Ask employees to put themselves in the shoes of someone joining their team. What do they wish they had known on their first day, week, month?

Notion Wiki Interface
Remote workers can’t ask their neighbors for help. Write things down.

Be Proactive With Employee Feedback

Without the informal coffee breaks or elevator run-ins, critical feedback often slips through the cracks. Make sure managers are consistently meeting one-on-one with their reports every week, and encourage them to document the meetings and use a consistent format (Manager Tools has a good one).

Pulse surveys are an important tool for getting feedback from remote workers on how well the team is working together. Use Peakon, Officevibe, or another survey tool to measure engagement, discover pain points, and ask for input.

Availability

Set Clear Expectations Around Office Hours

You may not expect remote workers to keep 100% “normal” hours, but you should make it clear when everyone is expected to be available over chat and email. Use Every Time Zone to find the team’s golden hours and share them with all members and when onboarding new hires.

Screenshot of the Every Time Zone website
Every Time Zone can help your team find the hours when everyone is available.

Be Religious with Out Of Office Notifications

It’s not always obvious when remote workers are sick, on vacation, or need to step out during the day. Ask everyone to keep a shared Out Of Office calendar up-to-date and add it to their computer and mobile devices.

If you use Slack, you can ask them to update their status when they need to step away during working hours. (Tip: you can customize the default suggestions for your team.)

Develop and Share a Clear Escalation Policy

In a crisis, being in the same office has one BIG advantage: you can always tap someone on the shoulder if they’re not responding over chat. Distributed teams need a clear escalation policy with different levels of urgency. For example, it might start with a public channel mention in Slack, followed by direct message, then a text, then a phone call.

Establish Quiet Hours

Remote work has one big advantage: everyone gets an office with a door. Ask team members to customize Do Not Disturb in Slack, and rely on your escalation policy for emergencies.

Meetings

Have a Standard Video Conference Setup

Hunting around for the link wastes time and kills momentum. Use Zoom, or Google Meet, or Slack Video Calls, but whatever you choose, make sure everyone knows the drill.

Mind the Decor and Remember to Get Dressed

Video conferences are a great way to get to know your coworkers better than you ever cared to. Remind your remote staff to separate work and personal space, look professional, and be mindful of their surroundings when on video.

A bunch of people on their webcams
Nothing sets the mood like a large-format poster of Bob Marley lighting up a spliff.

Learn How to Facilitate a Group Chat

Your distributed team is going to be on a lot of video conferences together. If they’re tiring and unproductive, people will find excuses to skip them, and before you know it half the team will have gone dark. Read The Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision-Making for a quick primer on group facilitation.

Use Collaboration Tools to Make Decisions Quickly

Realtime collaboration tools can help, too. Instead of going around the horn to gather yes/no votes, use Zoom’s Raise Hand feature. Learn how to use a remote whiteboard like Mural for dot voting to gather feedback on multiple options.

Work-Life Balance

Pay for a Gym Membership, Ergonomic Desks and Chairs

It will pay off in fewer missed days at work due to lower back pain caused by not enough activity. You’ll also encourage remote workers to separate work space from living space, which is best for their mental well-being.

Encourage Breaks Between Focused Work

There’s a downside to the interruption-free remote office: stretches of uninterrupted work are commonplace for remote workers. Sitting at a computer for hours on end worsens lower back pain, repetitive stress injuries, and eye strain.

It hurts productivity, too: it’s easy to lose track of time and spend longer than expected working the wrong things. The Pomodoro technique, which uses a timer to split work into 25-minute blocks, can help; encourage remote workers to use a Pomodoro app to help them stay focused.

Pomodoro kitchen timer
A cheap kitchen timer works just fine, but there are apps, of course.

Inclusion

Dial Them in During Celebratory Moments

Just closed a round of funding, or passed a key milestone? Don’t forget to ask your remote workers to join. If you can, project them onto a wall-mounted screen with its own webcam so they can share the moment with the rest of the team.

Don’t Forget to Ask for Their T-Shirt Size

When you’re handing out tchotchkes at the office, don’t forget to save a few for the folks at home. No one wants to feel like the odd one out.

Remember: no one likes being left out when you’re handing out swag.


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