Better remote teams

In this series, I’ve shared how and why I started working remotely, what has made me a successful remote employee for over a decade, and why I think 2020 was more about working through a pandemic than a great experiment in remote work. Hopefully this was good, relevant or even validating information and now we’re left with: What, therefore, should I do?1

Working — and, more specifically, collaborating — remotely can be improved in some fairly simple ways.

Be real and realistic #

First and foremost, we need to be real about the fact that folx are working from their home or, as COVID restrictions ease up, their local coffeeshop or on the road. Tech glitches, interruptions will happen.

Though I was already working remotely, the Portland HQ of Lumen Learning — like many others — transitioned to remote last spring with great urgency. During one of the first team meetings after that switch, the CEO straight up stated that we should all expect meeting and workday interruptions (from partners, children, critters) while working from home, and that they were not a reflection on anyone’s professionalism. That felt both realistic and kind, which to me is some of the best of leadership.

Meetings and not meetings #

Speaking of meetings, all the things we already know about running efficient meetings — as well as when something is not meeting worthy — is extra important when your team is remote. Honestly, it’s easy to multitask or tune out on meetings as a remote employee, so it’s worth the effort to make meetings worthwhile and relevant.

It’s easy to multitask or tune out on meetings as a remote employee, so it’s worth the effort to make meetings worthwhile and relevant.

In my experience, two quick changes can make massive improvements to your team meetings:

  1. Establish if this meeting should be a meeting
  2. Create and share an agenda

1. Establish if this meeting should be a meeting #

I know this is the source of many flowcharts and memes — and yet, here we are. It’s still true.

If the meeting is a straightforward announcement or status update, it’s really just better to share via email, Slack or whatever broadcast, async tool your team favors. If something requires a decision and is either simple or well documented, try getting to that decision in an async method.

Building up the muscle of asking this on your team is likely to get you characterized as someone who hates meetings, so it’s certainly helpful to frame this as wanting the team to be better and more effective and not just clearing the decks on your calendar.

2. Create and share an agenda #

A simple agenda accomplishes so much:

  • folx can establish if the meeting is relevant to them and opt out
  • Those attending know how to prepare, setting everyone up for success
  • Sets expectations about the meeting style: brainstorming, deciding
  • Keeps the meeting on topic because aha! 💡 you have agreed-upon topics of discussion

Once you’ve gotten into the habit of doing these two things, look into other methods to keep your meetings meaningful. I recommend Let’s Have Better Meetings! and 17 Easy Ways to Make Your Meetings Better as jumping off points for that exploration.

Wellness and boundaries #

Another key way you can improve your remote teams is by having open conversations about wellness and role modeling healthy boundaries. Especially if your team operates across time zones, folx may feel the pressure to always be on, always be available. Even as a manager or leader, this is not realistic and certainly isn’t sustainable.

On my team at Lumen, we’ve added information into our onboarding process about setting available hours on your calendar, and we use similar features in Slack to disable notifications. It’s important to document things like this because it sets an expectation of team norms.

Additionally, while I used to prioritize having my camera on during all our video meetings, I have done some recalibration in the last year. Teaching remotely and this summary of Stanford research into Zoom fatigue2 made me sympathetic to how intrusive that expectation can be.

Overall, many of these “fixes” aren’t even that specific to remote collaboration. Unfocused meetings are a drag on productivity and morale when everyone is around the same conference table, not just sharing the same Zoom line. With notifications hitting our phones at all hours, establishing team norms around shutting that down is important for on-site, hybrid and remote workers alike. In general, teams (and leaders specifically) need to build an appetite and a practice for evaluating which of their current processes are helping and hindering their teams. Paying attention and soliciting feedback on these things is the true key to better remote teams, better teams.

As always, feel free to send comments to me via Twitter.

  1. The college I attended had a curriculum based around "Core questions" like "How do we understand art?" or "Must the need for a stable social order conflict with individual liberty?" and each question was followed by "What, therefore, should I do?" Obviously, this framing has stuck with me and many others; most of the search results for this phrase tie back to reviews of the college or blogs by its students and alumni. 😹
  2. Really, this is a great summary. If you or your team is spending any significant amount of time in video chats, I highly recommend reading and sharing this article.

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