Ten years ago, almost to this day, I set-up my first home office and entered the world of remote working. Back in 2006, virtual working was the exception rather than the rule, and I only made it sustainable through hefty train fares into London each month for regular client meetings. Virtual collaboration tools and technology had a long way still to go, and connectivity was nowhere near as ubiquitous as it is today. But nevertheless, I made it work well, and discovered a newfound freedom through working when and where I liked.
Today, it’s easy to understand why remote working is rapidly becoming the norm. A 2015 AfterCollege Career Insight Survey found that 68% of job seekers, who happened to be millennials, would prefer the option to work remotely. ‘Going to work’ has become less about travelling to a particular office, having a desk and getting daily face-to-face time with colleagues. Increasingly, it’s become more about getting things done, enhancing productivity and seeing through projects efficiently, irrespective of time or location. Flexible working is now regarded by many as the solution to achieving a healthy work-life balance.
Building a virtual team opens up a far bigger pool of talent and potential candidates, and remote workers are said to be 35-40% more productive…but how does one go about building strong relationships with colleagues, when they are scattered all over the world? How does a manager foster a culture of collaboration, and encourage cohesion and a sense of belonging? At a time when virtual working is gathering noticeable pace, here are five tried and tested ways to build stronger connections with your remote colleagues.
Be responsive and offer regular updates
The ‘out of sight, out of mind’ mentality couldn’t be further from the truth when it comes to remote working. Speaking from experience, virtual team members who go ‘off the grid’ for a while, are generally doing so because they’re feeling overwhelmed or disengaged from the rest of the team.
For managers and colleagues alike, being readily available, responsive and following through on promises, will help remote workers to achieve their goals. For a virtual worker, there’s nothing more frustrating than not hearing back from colleagues within the office on important questions, or not being sent the critical assets that were promised. A remote colleague doesn’t have the same opportunity to walk to an individual’s desk or office to obtain in person the information or answer they are waiting for. Ignoring their requests, or being slow to respond, can make them feel low priority and significantly hamper their productivity.
Equip yourself and your colleagues with suitable remote working tools
One of the best ways to foster effective collaboration across a remote team is through the adoption of virtual working tools and software, which will enable easy communication and collaboration. Nowadays there’s plenty of choice in the market, from task-based management tools for keeping track of projects, such as Podio and Wrike through to productivity and time tracking tools like Harvest, and virtual meeting software such as GoToMeeting. Most offer a free trial if a subscription fee is involved, to help you assess whether the features and functionality can be customised to meet the needs of your company.
It’s critical that remote workers are granted access to the same tools as in-house staff, and licenses paid for, for reasons of morale as well as cooperation and productivity. The tools a remote worker needs include:
* An online project management tool or system, for creating visibility on workflow, responsibilities, progress and deadlines etc.
* Access to a reliable and secure virtual meeting tool, preferably with screen sharing options
* VOIP, with video functionality, for free calls with colleagues, to help foster team spirit
* A file sharing system, so that documents and assets are shared centrally and readily available across time zones
* Instant messenger for quick dialogue, to create a sense of being in regular contact
Provide collaborative feedback
When a project’s done and dusted, it can be easy for virtual colleagues to be left out of the loop on feedback, as very often these discussions take place within the physical workplace. This can be isolating if they were involved in the creative process at the outset, and have played an intrinsic part in seeing the project through to completion. It can be common for remote members of the team to not feel as invested in a project than their colleagues who are physically present to see it all come together, unless there’s a system in place for providing the same collaborative feedback to everyone involved.
Make video a part of team culture
Within communication, only 7% of the words we use or write are heard. Thirty-eight percent of what is perceived in communication is through the tone of voice, and 55% through body language.
Far better than text-based dialogue, is to encourage a culture of video communications, so that geographically dispersed colleagues get to see each other ‘face to face’, on a regular basis. These video calls can be scheduled or ad hoc, and ideally a mixture of both, but the key is to keep them natural and open, to help build team spirit. Experiment with organising weekly video hangouts, for example, at a specific time each week, for lightning talks, demos, brainstorms, etc. Another tactic can be to buddy-up with colleagues on a regular basis, and encourage them to have a video chat so that teams get to know each other better, and have the opportunity to share ideas informally.
Reward success, virtually
Remote colleagues take the same level of pride in their work, if not more. When they’ve toiled through a massive project and exceeded expectations, it’s crucial that their work is applauded in the same way that it would be within the office. That feeling of satisfaction, and a job well done, will go a long way towards motivating a virtual worker on their next project, for example.
While it might not be possible to buy a remote colleague a round of drinks on a Friday night after work, there are other ways to acknowledge achievement virtually. Implementing a digital rewards programme, for example, can be a way of creating a level playing field between in-house staff and remote workers.
One of the benefits of nurturing a remote team is that it’s still an emerging space, and so there’s plenty of scope for experimentation. Through trial and error, you’ll come to see what works best for your organisation.