Practices of Successful Remote Teams

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Practices of Successful Remote Teams

This section was written by Steph Smith.

Remote forces you to do the things that you should be doing anyway, earlier and better.Sid Sijbrandij, co-founder and CEO, GitLab*

From the outside, a successful remote team looks like a successful team. They hit their goals without burning people out; team members understand what they should be working on and feel ownership and pride in their work; they have open and honest communication and can positively resolve conflict; they are resilient and can adapt to failure and change.

Remote workforces don’t need to reinvent what good work looks like, but they must be more intentional about what makes a good business run at a distance, from codifying culture, to setting goals and vision, to streamlining processes for collaboration. Remote teams must put a premium on communication, documentation, autonomy, trust, and the mental health of everyone on the team.

In this section, we’ll highlight key areas of focus for successful remote teams, and point you to the sections of the guide where we cover the strategies that put those into action.

Communicating Intentionally

Speaking only helps who’s in the room; writing helps everyone.The Basecamp Guide to Internal Communication*

The need to communicate well is not unique to remote work, but it’s one of the key areas that can make or break remote work for an organization. Distributed teams must decide on and document how they will communicate; otherwise chaos and confusion will follow. An effective communication system requires:

  • Building an architecture. In order to streamline communication, whether between ten early-stage employees or across dozens of global teams, companies need to set up guidelines in a communication architecture. These guidelines will help your team communicate requests on a sliding scale of urgency, lowering the risk of burnout and helping individuals to prioritize tasks.*

  • Aiming for asynchronous. An important part of your communication architecture is setting expectations regarding synchronous and asynchronous communication—that is, knowing what needs to be discussed live, right now, and what doesn’t need immediate response. It is wise for every company and team to develop communication policies to identify when, where, and how to engage in each type of communication, including guidelines for asynchronous or synchronous behavior, and use of related tools.

  • Actively managing time differences. Don’t leave it to chance for your team to work out how to handle time zone differences. Once communication has to span more than 2–3 time zones, lots of default practices start to break down. You will want to map out who is where, when they are available, and what your main periods of overlap are. You can then fold that into your communication architecture, so people can know when to expect more synchronous forms of communication, and can schedule needed meetings and standups during those times of overlap. (If there’s no overlap whatsoever, teams have to get even more creative. See more in Time Zone Protocols.)

Commitment to Documentation

In a remote environment, it’s essential to provide documentation of what it’s like to work at the company, including policies, processes, protocols, tools, values, and culture. In a traditional office environment, these things should also be written down, but often aren’t—it’s easier to get context on something when you can just stop someone in the hall and ask, or watch others model the expected behavior. Remote offices have no choice. These processes need to be codified such that people can work asynchronously and autonomously and still track toward the same goals and foster the same values. Documentation about company and team processes should be:

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  • Asynchronously available. Ideally, your practices will make it abundantly clear to all members of the team where they can find information, regardless of the specific tooling that is selected by the company.

  • Regularly updated. This will prevent people from constantly having to ask where they can find X, or what the status of something is. The more regularly and predictably this information is updated, the less often people will have to schedule extraneous meetings or rely on other synchronous communication simply to be up to speed on what is happening or how to get something done.

  • Open. In a healthy system, anyone at the company is able to either make changes, or easily request them; and is free to ask questions that will be answered within a short amount of time.

Without this visibility, it’s nearly impossible for people to collaborate cross-functionally and understand the bigger picture, and extremely difficult to work autonomously.

Visibility Across Teams

Remote workers can’t glance over the cubicle or overhear a conversation in the lunchroom—they can’t gather context on a particular initiative or have a feel for what’s going on company-wide by simply being there.

In remote work, especially as a company grows, people are usually included in the conversations that are most relevant to their job, but not much else. Yet having a comprehensive view of the company and initiatives happening across teams can be essential for keeping all employees on track and motivated. This kind of visibility helps people understand how their work fits in to the larger mission, and gives them a chance to get excited about their colleagues’ projects and progress.

To avoid missing out on crucial decisions and discussions, people try to always be online and in as many meetings as possible, hurting both their well-being and productivity.Amir Salihefendic, founder and CEO, Doist*

To avoid that fate, there are a number of ways to increase visibility across teams:

  • Company handbook. You might also hear this referred to as a “central source of truth,” “central repository” or “document cache,” and it’s the one place where anyone can go to get answers about how your company operates. Written communication can be augmented with other mediums, like an onboarding tutorial recorded in Loom, but it’s important to establish written communication as the prioritized approach because it is persistent and asynchronous, and thus enables team members to learn and operate at their own pace.

  • Digital water cooler. Some companies have developed digital versions of their own water cooler which allows everyone to get a sense of what else is happening across the company. Many companies use Slack or some form of Q&A forum for this purpose.

  • Public org chart. Another key element of ensuring transparency across teams is creating a public organization chart. The org chart can take many forms, but effective ones at the very least outline each person’s role, manager, and team, culminating in a visual representation of how they ladder up. By setting up a thoughtful naming system and a public org chart, people will be able to easily access and participate in conversations that they may not otherwise be directly privy to.

  • All-hands meetings. Whether you’re a six-person startup or larger company in the hundreds or thousands of employees, regular, synchronous meetings of the entire organization are critical for large-scale goal alignment and important updates.

story “At Turing, we have arranged 1:1s among randomly or intentionally chosen pairs of people. They exchange things like ’Show me on google map where you grew up, or where you live,’ or ’What project are you working on the last/next month?’ The overall setting is quite relaxing and is designed to build stronger interpersonal connections and trust, but it also creates more visibility.” —Jay Yuan, Engineering Lead, Turing

Visibility Within Teams

  • Stand-ups. Many teams have daily or weekly stand-ups where each person shares what they accomplished yesterday, what they’re doing today, and/or what they’re working toward for tomorrow. Stand-ups do not have to happen in live meetings. Having a team stand-up channel in Slack or a shared document where employees can add notes on what they’re working on today is a helpful form of visibility that encourages trust without the pressure to micromanage.

  • Team agreements. We recommend that teams develop their own agreements that designate how they work together. This may differ from the broader company communication architecture in that it can include individual communication preferences, and describe how that particular team handles time zones, if they are a factor for them but not others.

Fostering Autonomy

Human beings have an innate inner drive to be autonomous, self-determined, and connected to one another. And when that drive is liberated, people achieve more and live richer lives.Daniel Pink, bestselling author, Drive*

Successful remote teams enable individuals to be self-directed and have a certain amount of autonomy or control over what they do and how they accomplish their assigned or chosen tasks. In order to foster autonomy, teams need to be structured so that each person can work independently, while still contributing to the collective goal. Autonomy is not just a psychological structure, but should best penetrate into logistics, including employees having agency to build their own schedules—the ability to swap calendar tetris for some deep work. Companies and managers can do a number of things to help these employees thrive:

  • Establish your values. When values are documented in the company handbook and permeate the communication architecture, employees are empowered to make decisions on a daily basis that are aligned with these values, and can be trusted without constant managerial oversight.

  • Set goals and KPIs. It’s helpful to make clear what is expected of each team and employee, but not necessarily how an individual needs to get there. Goals and KPIs might be identified each period (monthly, quarterly, yearly) and layer up through the organization. Team goals can also be documented and made accessible by everyone, including other teams.

  • Clarify roles and responsibilities. In a company that fosters healthy autonomy, each individual on the team should be able to articulate the “why” behind what they do, with a clear understanding of how their actions drive impact and integrate with the rest of the company. If roles and responsibilities are made transparent on a public org chart, employees are further empowered to reach out laterally for help or answers. Once individuals have the information needed to succeed, they’ll be able to effectively operate without rigid rules.

  • Provide context. Employees need as much context as possible to make decisions on their own. This is maximized when people know exactly what you expect of them (deadlines, goals, et cetera); there is no need for anyone to be making assumptions. In addition to the company creating a robust documentation system, everyone can be directed to make sure they are asking questions, as well as both receiving and providing enough information when communicating asynchronously.

  • Reward impact. Working in an office can train you to operate in ways that are hard to shake. One of those is the tendency to tie your impact to the hours that you spend in the office, regardless of your net output throughout the day. Successful remote teams recognize that this approach is not optimal, and reward outcomes and associated impact instead. Rewards within an organization (bonuses, promotions, public recognition) can be aligned with the behavior that the company is trying to shape. Reward a publications team, for example, for the amount of additional traffic they’re driving instead of the sheer number of articles they’re producing.

Building Trust

If you feel trusted, you feel more responsible, and if you are responsible, you earn more trust. It’s simple.Nuno Baldaia, software engineer, Doist*

Trust is the cornerstone of any healthy relationship. It’s also one of the most important aspects of successful, high-performing teams. In a Harvard study of trust on professional teams, they found that high-trust teams report:

  • 74% less stress

  • 106% more energy at work

  • 50% higher productivity

  • 13% fewer sick days

  • 76% more engagement

  • 29% more satisfaction with their lives

  • 40% less burnout

When you trust someone, you don’t have control over that person’s intentions or actions, but you believe that they have good intentions and will do what they say they’re going to do. Building trust in a remote environment can be more difficult, because trust typically arises gradually over time through our direct interactions with other people. Without traditional in-office touchpoints, it’s tempting for managers to want to opt for more visibility into their team’s productivity, whether that takes shape as a time-tracking app, website monitoring, ad-hoc requests for status updates, or other forms of micromanaging. But this makes it harder for colleagues to form trustworthy bonds with each other; as a corollary, it’s easier for trust to break down in remote teams.

Just as it’s best to intentionally design and continually support communication in a remote environment, it’s also important to do the same with trust-building activities. This includes:

  • Establishing “On Track” as the default status for everyone on the team.

  • Publicly recognizing and rewarding people’s efforts and successes

  • Supporting the psychological safety of remote workers

  • Getting everyone together every once in a while—remote teams that trust each other turn out to be happier and more productive.

cautionA high-trust remote culture will not build itself. Investment in building relationships across wifi connections requires each individual to learn how to communicate effectively digitally, but also needs time allocated to non-transactional activities, like co-working sessions or yearly retreats. Additionally, it’s important to make sure you’re rewarding people for embracing company values, and to take steps to seriously address situations where an employee compromises values, regardless of how “good” their work is.

Supporting Mental Health

The only time a manager is allowed to inquire about how many hours you work is when they suspect you’re working too many hours.Sid Sijbrandij, co-founder and CEO, GitLab*

While striving for impact, burnout becomes a big risk for remote employees. Without institutionalized boundaries, people are left to create their own. And in some cases, those are neglected entirely. As Adam Grant and Reb Rebelle put it, “The road to exhaustion is often paved with good intentions.”* The unfortunate consequence of increased autonomy and self-regulation for remote workers is that sometimes people struggle to set their own boundaries due to a multitude of contributing factors, including tendencies like giver burnout, as Grant and Rebelle describe. Managers and employees can work together to:

  • Set boundaries. The burden for creating boundaries at work should not fall to employees alone. The steps that employees can take to protect themselves should be encouraged; but it’s far more important for managers to look out for signs employees may be working too much. It’s the responsibility of the employer to help their people establish the right boundaries. This isn’t heroic—it’s smart and sustainable. Employers can use specific constraints like a minimum vacation policy, a mandatory set of holidays to take off, and asking employees to block off non-work time on their shared calendars.*

  • Connect. Having personal connections with the people you work with not only improves the productivity of the team overall, it helps stave off loneliness and feelings of isolation. Connection can be fostered in ways both big and small, from chats in Slack and chit-chat before meetings, to virtual social hours, to full-blown, in-person retreats.

  • Share. Employers can model valuing mental health by talking about their own challenges, and supporting employees to reach out if feeling lonely or isolated.

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