10 steps to better remote teams

Working at the beach

The way that we’re working is changing, at least for the most of us. Thanks to increasing globalisation; thanks to the Internet, mobile technology, high speed broadband, video conferencing and finally being able to release ourselves from the historical shackles of the industrial revolution the era of remote teams, indeed entire remote organisations is rapidly approaching. We are turning a new page in the big book of work and that page has a big shiny picture of someone working remotely on it (no doubt from a beach, or whilst sipping cocktails by the side of the pool).

If you hadn’t noticed remote working is booming at the moment. From companies like Basecamp for which most of their employees work remotely, to global corporations with remote teams and companies that simply want to let their employees work from home now and then, remote working is fast becoming the norm. By 2020 Citrix thinks that up to 70% of us will work away from the office as often as we work from the office (although being a remote tool supplier they do have somewhat of a vested interest). To put it simply, if you don’t already work in a remote team, chances are that you soon will do.

Remote teams are great, but they don’t come without their challenges. Humans have evolved to interact directly with one another. Take away that direct interaction and it’s not so much going to rock the boat, as potentially capsize it. Fortunately these challenges can be overcome and I know from my own experience that a remote team can work, and work well. I’ve taken what I’ve learnt over the years working in various remote teams to create these 10 steps to better remote working for teams.

1. Determine if you actually need a remote team

There is a reason that Agile advocates co-location of teams, it’s because it’s the most natural and the most effective way of working. Early man didn’t IM his mate to find out if he wanted to go out hunting with him, or conference call his elders to discuss an important matter, he communicated and more importantly collaborated face to face.

Even though remote working is clearly on the rise, I’d recommend that you only set-up a remote team if you can’t have a co-located team. Having a part remote, part co-located team, such as a col-located development team and remote designer can also be tricky as the remote members of the team will often be left out of the conversation (as this will happen face-to-face) and can feel very isolated. I think that it’s usually better to either set-up a fully remote team, or have several mini co-located teams that collaborate remotely. For example, a co-located design team and co-located development team.

Group hug

Always aim for co-located teams if you can

2. Come up with a remote working plan

As anyone who has ever worked in a remote team will tell you, remote working is quite different from working face-to-face. You can’t just take out that face-to-face interaction and expect things to work just the same. This is why it’s so important to collectively discuss and agree a remote working plan upfront.

Think about how you’re going to communicate remotely as a team. Which tools are you going to use? How are you going to share things? How regularly are you going to catch up? How will decisions and actions be tracked? Rather than making it up as you go along I’ve found it better to discuss and agree these things upfront so that everyone can feed into the plan and knows what is expected of them.

3. Invest in good remote tools and technology

Good remote tools and technology are essential to effective remote working as a team. There is nothing more infuriating that trying to make a video call over a crappy Internet connection, or straining to hear someone because the audio on a call is terrible.

On your technology shopping list should be:

  • A fast and reliable Internet connection
  • Good quality headphones and mics
  • A document camera like the excellent IPEVO Ziggi-HD for sharing sketches
Document camera

A document camera is a great way to remotely share sketches and printouts

Good hardware is important, but so is good software. Ideally you should invest in a good suite of collaboration and video conferencing tools. I can heartily recommend:

  • Basecamp – A great project collaboration tool
  • Slack – A simple messaging and collaboration tool
  • Confluence – A simple wiki which is great for storing project information
  • WebEx – Good for video conferencing and screensharing
  • InVision – A great tool for sharing and discussing designs
  • Trello – A great tool for keeping track of stuff
  • Mural – A great virtual whiteboard app for sharing and collaborating in real time
Mural screenshot

Mural is a great way to remotely share stuff when you don’t have a phyiscally shared wall or whiteboard

4. Set the ground rules and standards

In any team people need to know what is expected of them. This is as true for a football or basketball team, as a project team. When will team members need to be ‘online’ and available for chats? What are the preferred channels of communication? How is the team going to review designs? Setting ground rules and standards is especially important for remote teams because interactions tend to be much more sporadic. Make sure that everyone in the team knows what is expected of them and of course periodically review your ground rules and standards so that you can continue to keep things ticking along as smoothly as possible.

5. Think about how best to run activities remotely

Lots of activities like design reviews, co-design workshops and ideation sessions can work well remotely, but you’ll need to change things up a little. I’ve found that often the best tactic is to run mini-sessions individually or in small groups, where face-to-face meetings are often possible and then to come together remotely as a group to share and discuss things. For example ask everyone to individually review designs and then collectively go through the feedback remotely. You can also utilise the same tactic for workshops. Get groups or individuals to tackle a problem face-to-face and then get together online to discuss. Real-time remote collaboration using tools such as Google Docs and Mural is of course possible, but it takes discipline and practice, and for a lot of teams more of a divide and share approach is often more effective.

6. Declare death to emails

I hate emails, I really do. They are an electronic relic from those grainy black and white days when people corresponded by letter and all had beautiful spirally handwriting. Emails are hard to search and track, they are not open to the whole team, they are prone to misinterpretation and are quite frankly a lazy way to communicate. Don’t believe me? See this great email in real life comedy video showing what it would be like if we communicated in real life as we do in emails!

Rather than communicating via email, push the team to use more effective channels of communication instead. Top of the list should be video and audio calls, instant messaging and team messaging tools such as Slack, Basecamp and HipChat. Push for real-time communication when possible. Of course for global remote teams time differences can make real-time communication difficult so in the absence of being able to chat with team mates face-to-face you should look to chat via video conferencing or as a minimum instant messaging.

Slack screenshot

Try to use a team messaging tool such as Slack over cumbersome and outdated email

7. Get personal

Building a rapport with someone often comes very naturally when you meet them face-to-face, but is much more difficult when you can only meet them virtually. This is why it’s such a good idea to use video conferencing as much as possible as it’s the closest to face-to-face you can get when working remotely. It’s also a good idea to ensure that everyone has a profile photo set-up (of them, not of a superhero he or she would like to be) so that everyone knows what everyone else looks like. Another nice idea is to set-up a webcam for each team member and then stream these online (or take a snapshot every 5 to 10 seconds) so that someone can see if a team mate is at their desk or not. Some people might find this a little intrusive, but I’ve certainly seen it work well for remote teams.

Of course the best way to build a rapport is to meet someone face-to-face, which is why trying to meet up at least once as a team is a great idea. For example, you might try to meet up during an initial kick-off workshop or at a team building event. If getting the whole team together isn’t possible then at least getting key members together is the next best thing.

Video conferencing

Video conferencing is a great way to build a good rapport within a remote team

8. Meet-up as regularly as possible

When you’re working in a remote team the opportunities to meet up with team mates, even if it’s only virtually are usually few and far between, certainly when compared to a team that is co-located. There’s less opportunity to chat about last night’s game or to catch up about an important piece of work. It’s therefore important that you set-up regularly team meet-ups. These might be online, or even face-to-face if possible. For example, I’ve worked on remote teams that have agreed that everyone should try to be in the office on an agreed day each week (try to avoid Mondays and Fridays though as these are often bank holidays or taken off as leave). A daily team stand up is also arguably more important for remote teams than co-located teams as co-ordination is less likely to happen naturally. Try to spend up to 15 minutes a day getting together to discuss progress, any impediments and important team matters.

9. Maximise the time you have together

As a remote team you will have less time together than a co-located team, so it’s important that you make the best use of that time. I know it’s obvious but try to arrange meetings for times that work across time zones. There’s no more sure fire way to piss off team members than scheduling meetings that are very early in the morning, or very late at night! It’s also a good idea to time box activities so that you can best focus everyone’s efforts on the time you have together.

10. Run regular retrospectives

Working within a remote team is hard work. What works for a co-located team doesn’t necessarily work for a remote team and what works for one team, doesn’t necessarily work so well for another. It’s important to regularly review how things are going and decide if and when you need to change things. I’ve found it useful to carry out a team review every 2 or 3 weeks so that the whole team can discuss what is working, what isn’t working and most importantly what needs to be changed. As you will invariably need to run retrospectives remotely I’ve found Trello and Mural to be useful ways of capturing and sharing insights. Another good tactic is to ask people to carry out their reflections before the meeting and to bring these to the meeting for discussion. This ensures that you can spend more time discussing matters and agreeing actions and less time umming and arrhhing over what does and doesn’t currently work.

Final thoughts

Working remotely as a team is a challenge, there’s no doubt about that. There’s also no doubt that remote teams are becoming more and more common place. As I’ve already mentioned, if you don’t already work in a remote, or at least a partly remote team, the chances are that you soon will do. Like a giant cybernetic Borg army (as opposed to a giant Bjork army, which would be terrifying) remote teams and remote working is coming and as any true Star Trek fan will tell you, when it comes to a Borg army, resistance is futile!

See also

Image credits

Working on the beach by Nick Danford
Group hug by David Goehring
Using MURAL for Remote Lean UX with FanDuel by Jim Kalbach
Video conference with Chris by Zeljko.filipin