You’re having a peaceful, productive morning. The kids are at school, and the house is quiet except for your favorite focus music playing in the background. You’re really hitting your groove until — ping! — you get a message from a co-worker that says, “Hey, got a second?”
Working from home definitely has its perks, but interruptions like this are not one of them.
Remote team collaboration is a new challenge for many of us who are still adjusting to remote and hybrid work. These days, face-to-face meetings, huddles in front of the whiteboard, and impromptu breakroom brainstorming sessions are a thing of the past.
In today’s hybrid workplace, collaboration time is up, and focus time — when we can dedicate two or more uninterrupted hours to a singular task — is down. That’s hurting our productivity. In fact, remote employees worked an average of 26 extra hours per month during the pandemic, according to Owl Labs’ 2020 State of Remote Work. That’s almost an extra day every week — and a recipe for burnout.
Mastering remote team collaboration is crucial to maintaining our productivity — and sanity — while enjoying the benefits of working from home.
Cultivate effective communication
Remote workers miss out on visual clues that help us identify when it’s a good (or bad) time to reach out to a teammate. And since so much information is conveyed nonverbally — without a person’s tone of voice or body language — we’re starting at a disadvantage when collaboration only happens through our computer screens. Codifying a few best practices for remote communication will help your team collaborate more efficiently and minimize workflow disruptions.
Be brief, but be clear
It’s good to be concise, but brevity at the cost of clarity can be counterproductive if what you’re trying to do is save time. Without context, terse questions (or answers) can come across as rude or angry, which no one appreciates — and could be flat-out harmful under some circumstances. (You wouldn’t send an angry missive to your company’s CEO and expect to have a job the following day, would you?)
Write and speak in complete sentences in your internal communications. Be sure you’re including the relevant context (and only the relevant context) to avoid misunderstandings, confusion, and time wasted trying to interpret the meaning of a message.
Set expectations and boundaries
When you’re part of a remote team — especially one that’s dispersed across multiple time zones — instant answers aren’t always possible (or even necessary, if we’re being honest). When communicating with your colleagues, be clear about if and when you need a response. Some organizations have even made this a part of their company culture, developing shorthand such as “4HR” (four-hour response) or “NNTR” (no need to respond).
Likewise, being disciplined about sticking to your “office hours” creates consistency for your colleagues (not to mention important downtime for you). If you answer a query after hours once, why wouldn’t other team members expect you to do it again (and again)?
Keep conversations in their right place
How much time do you spend searching through Slack or email for information you know is there but just can’t find? According to a recent study of 2,000 knowledge workers, half of us spend between 30 minutes and two hours per day looking for the information we need to do our jobs.
Setting rules for where specific topics are discussed will save you a lot of time and frustration. For example, create dedicated Slack channels for different teams or subjects, or limit conversations around benefits and payroll to email. This can keep you from scrolling through hundreds of messages to find what you’re looking for.
This goes for non-work-related conversations, too, by the way — make room for them! Without the proverbial water cooler as a conversation spot, team building is even more important for a healthy company culture. Connecting with your teammates on outside interests will help build relationships, which can make remote team collaboration easier.
Get the most out of meetings
“More meetings than usual” was cited as one of the biggest challenges of working remotely in the Owl Labs report — right up there with having children at home. In fact, 80% of full-time remote workers surveyed said they want one day a week without any meetings at all.
With so many meetings already clogging up your calendar, an unnecessary one is especially disruptive and annoying, so make sure each meeting adds real value.
Schedule standing meetings
Predictable, standing meetings between teams enable attendees to be prepared with questions and relevant information because they know it’s coming. The frequency of these meetings will vary between teams, of course. Your software developers might have a daily standup if they use agile methodology, but the marketing team, for example, might do weekly check-ins.
Standing meetings can also minimize disruptions to employees who are in vastly different time zones and help them manage their time more effectively. Knowing when the meetings are being held ahead of time ensures they don’t get left out of remote team collaboration that occurs during their off-hours.
Always have an agenda
Holding a video conference without an agenda is like traveling without a map: it’s a good way to waste time going in circles. Make sure every meeting has a clear agenda that includes what the desired outcome or next steps will be.
Optimize your workflows
When you’re spread across time zones, work can get held up waiting for the next person to come online. Organizing your workflows to align with your team’s schedule and leveraging remote collaboration tools will minimize frustration and delays.
Employ remote team collaboration tools
The market is chock-full of applications that facilitate remote work and team management. Most of these tools are Software as a Service (SaaS), so your teams can implement them with minimal help from your IT department. (They usually come with free trials, too!)
Of course you need tools like Slack and Zoom to facilitate remote communication, but a few more categories have emerged to support remote and hybrid teams:
Knowledge-sharing tools. You already have enough meetings — you don’t want to have to schedule another video call to show someone how to do what you do. A tool like Scribe enables you to document your digital processes without disrupting your workflow and share a visual, step-by-step guide for them to follow. Another helpful tool is Soapbox or Loom, either of which you can use to create video tutorials (that include screen-sharing) asynchronously that your colleagues can access when it’s convenient for them.
Project management software. With tools like Trello, Asana, and Basecamp, your team leaders can see the status of the tasks you and your teammates are working on. That way, they don’t have to interrupt your work to ask for an update. A project management tool also helps consolidate communications about any collaborative tasks within the platform so the relevant information is easily accessible.
Virtual collaboration tools. When the whole team can’t make it to the whiteboard, a virtual collaboration platform like MURAL, Miro, Figjam, or Whimsical brings the whiteboard to them. Team members can use these tools to collaborate asynchronously or in real-time, using chat, sticky notes, or even audio calls.
Take advantage of asynchronous work
You know there will be times when you’ll be waiting for a co-worker to log in before you can take a project to the next step. Use that time for the deep, focused work you do on your own.
To minimize disruptions, add your focused work time as an event on your calendar so your teammates know not to interrupt you during that time. You can also use your status bar in Slack to reflect when you’re available — and when you’re not. A simple phrase like “Open to chat” or “Please do not disturb” will clue your virtual team into whether or not it’s a good time to reach out.
Finally, plan your workflows according to your teams’ schedules. For example, say you live in the U.S. and your manager — or whoever’s input is needed to move a project forward — lives in England, five hours ahead. Aim to complete your work by the end of your workday, so they can pick it up while you sleep.
You can even collaborate asynchronously using tools like the message scheduler in Slack. That way, you can make sure your teammate receives your message during their work hours, which prevents your communication from getting lost in the shuffle or disrupting their non-work hours.
Achieve better work-life balance
With good time management and effective remote team collaboration, you’ll improve team productivity and be able to actually enjoy the perks of working from home — without putting in all those extra hours.