Looking to optimize how your remote team works together?  Try these tips. 

If you had asked anyone what virtual collaboration meant 10 years ago (ok, maybe 15 years ago), they would have stared at you with a blank face.  Today, the term has progressed beyond buzzword and is something for which teams strive to optimize as they get more and more dispersed.  


What Is Virtual Collaboration?

On its most basic level, virtual collaboration is the act of working together with someone in another location.  However, this definition does a disservice to one of the most important aspects of collaboration - personal interaction.  In my opinion, successful collaboration depends both on how productive you are and how well you work together.  Because of this, the tips on this list will focus not only on improving productivity, but also on creating bonds among remote teams and coworkers.


How Can You Improve Your Virtual Collaboration?

Use Surveys to Identify Pain Points

In a post on their blog, the Ted Talks team explained why they consider surveys to be invaluable in helping them support workers regardless of location.  

We send out staff surveys periodically to understand pain points for people inside and outside the office. It’s a work in progress and there’s always room for improvement, but structural support is one of the most important factors in pulling off reliable virtual collaboration.

Assuming you are already utilizing an open-door policy and touch base meetings, we suggest making the surveys anonymous (or at least make it optional) so employees can be completely open about anything that might be bothering them or hindering their work.


Emphasize the Remote Office

Even if your team only works remotely part time, it’s important for them to have a dedicated work space at home.  While emphasizing this during onboarding the reinforcing it through company culture are good practices, I really like how Automattic (makers of Wordpress) provides a stipend to employees to help them outfit their home offices.

In the words of founder Matt Mullenweg, this is just one of things that helps them "attract and retain the best talent without them having to be in New York or San Francisco or one of the traditional tech centers."

Another option is to offer employees a coworking stipend to help them offset the costs of renting a desk wherever they are located.  Basecamp provides their employees with $100 per month to help ensure that they find a place where they can work best.


Get Rid of the Traditional Schedule

Unless there are some really good reasons to maintain a consistent schedule, employees will almost certainly be happier and more productive if they can work when it’s best for them.

In what is arguably the authoritative guide on working remote, Zapier asked various remote workers how they prevent burnout.  Many of them said that making their own schedule helped them better manage their time and accomplish more:

...schedule some time for relaxing/socializing and/or close, supportive relationships. Remote work offers flexibility, and I appreciate the work-life balance that comes with that.
My home is my safe place, and I need to respect and honor it just as I try to do my own sanity by keeping a schedule, and making sure that I don’t get into the habit of burning that midnight oil.


Hire the Right People

While remote work can bring out the best in some, there will inevitably be people that take advantage of it or fail to adapt.  This can result in poor work, missed deadlines, or frustration among a team or coworkers.

It’s impossible for companies to prevent this entirely, but putting more effort into hiring the right people is an easy way to mitigate the risk.

Visiple CEO Evan J. Andriopoulos looks for the following characteristics when hiring remote workers:

...those that have worked remotely or at the least traveled a lot e.g. Road-warriors. They understand the value of working remotely. Those that have vision and can work independently.

Hubstaff co-founder David Nevogt breaks it down even further in this blog post, stating that he looks to hire people that are accountable, technical, proactive, and communicate well.


Have Regular Meetings

Even if everyone is working on their own schedule, it’s important to have at least semi-regular meetings.  This not only makes it easier to circulate and celebrate company news, but also helps employees put faces to names and promotes accountability in their work.  

The Trello blog does a great job of explaining why and how often their marketing team meets:

Meetings can be a timesuck, but they are critical for maintaining a team that feels connected. Meetings serve dual purposes on remote teams: talking about work, and also reminding everyone that they are on a team. Think of it as making sure we’re on the same ship, rather than stranded on our own desert isles, trying to yell to each other for help. Even if meetings are extremely brief, they still help remote workers battle feelings of isolation. Our team meets three times a week. It’s a great way for us to stay in tune with what’s going on regularly, and bring up more creative brainstorming pursuits before we meet.


Don’t Forget to Meet in Person!

Though it will likely happen far less frequently, it’s important to try and make sure your entire team (and preferably your company) meets in person once or twice a year.  This can be in the form of a work retreat or just a weekend getaway, but bringing remote workers together is incredibly beneficial for chemistry and long term virtual collaboration.  Ideally, employees will leave with a better understanding of who they are working with and an improved sense of teamwork that will yield quality work all around.

In the words of Customer.io founder Colin Nederkoorn,

Even with all the great tools today, you can’t beat the richness of being in the same room with people.


Limit Emails

Similar to meetings, excessive emails can waste a lot of your time.  If you find yourself sending repeated messages back and forth to a teammate, try picking up the phone or having a remote meeting.  Messages and emails definitely make a lot of things easier in the modern workplace, but I am always surprised how easily (and quickly) issues can be addressed when you’re speaking instead of writing.

Liquid Planner tries to limit their employees to 3 emails per subject, otherwise they prefer they pick up the phone:

Email is not meant to be a discussion board. If a team member exchanges email more than three times on a specific subject, pick up the phone and have a discussion. The same rule applies to instant messaging. If there is any misunderstanding, pick up the phone and have a discussion.


Use Tools that Meet Your Needs

It’s an amazing time to work remotely - there is a constant stream of new tools designed to help you be more productive and to make it easier to stay in contact with your team.  However, with all the options available, it’s easy to find yourself overwhelmed and trying to balance conversations on both HipChat and Slack while looking for documents in Drive and Dropbox.

Save yourself the headache and establish the tools you’ll use early.  There are few things more frustrating that trying to figure out where a file is stored or bouncing between meeting platform depending on the participants.  Find a set of tools that meets your immediate needs, document them in the company wiki, and stick to them no matter what (making an exception establishes a bad precedent).

There are dozens of great [tools] out there, the most important thing is picking one that works for you and sticking with it.
— Len Markidan @ Groove

As an employee, it’s your responsibility to use the same tools as the rest of your team.  However, if you come across something that is far better than what you are using, don’t be afraid to give it a test drive, document your findings, and bring it up with the team if you think it works better than the current tool.


Wrapping Up

Having the ability to work remote is amazing and I know I’m not alone when I say I have a hard time picturing myself going back to an office environment full time.  With that being said, it is not without it’s challenges and mastering virtual collaboration will always be a trial and error process.  Teams operate differently, use different tools, and have different expectations of their members.  

What’s important to remember is that there are always things you can do differently, implement, and test out in order to improve your team’s performance and chemistry.  As long as you keep in mind that the goal is productivity mixed with improved team chemistry, you’re on the right track.