Recently an article popped up on LinkedIn from Ryan Hoover (https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/problems-remote-working-ryan-hoover/), that discussed many of the issues telecommuters or remote workers face.
The problems he listed:
- Watercooler Serendipity
Some of them I can agree with and I wrote about my own issues with remote working here. I certainly covered communication, distractions, and disconnecting issues.
Loneliness isn’t really an issue for me. I think a lot of that depends on the person. It takes a certain mindset and personality to enjoy telecommuting and not feel lonely. If you are a person who needs a lot of interaction with other people, it probably won’t work well for you on the loneliness front.
The respect issue seems to come up more when your team is all in one office and you are one of the very few telecommuters. I have been in conference calls where the entire team was in one conference room and I was the one person on the phone calling in. It is a lot harder to be heard in that situation.
Here are my 8 tips for trying to increase some of these “watercooler moments” in a distributed environment:
1. One-on-One Meetings
Managers should have one-on-one meetings with the people in their teams. Try to do it at least every two weeks. Take, at a minimum, 15 minutes and just catch up with individuals on the team. This should be a fairly informal meeting.
2. One-on-One Meetings – Coworker Edition
Coworkers, or people in related job roles, should set up times to communicate with each other and catch up once in a while. Obviously doing this with every employee you may work with is impractical, but having a small group of a couple of people you actively communicate with can improve the collaboration and interaction of your team.
You discuss with them the work you are doing and listen to them explain the work they are doing. Hopefully, but not always, this will get a conversation going.
3. Employee Buddy
A sort of semi-random pairing organized by the company. It works like the “one-on-one meeting – coworker edition” but it should be with people further outside of your normal circle. A person who works in a process that feeds work into your process could be a good option. You discuss your role, what you are working on, and what your silo/division is currently doing.
4. Meeting About Nothing
At least once a month have an open forum meeting with a small group of people (less than 10). The facilitator may have to treat it like a brainstorming session. When you prompt people to talk about random stuff they usually don’t. So the meeting about nothing should really be more of a couple of random topics.
The facilitator should send an email out the day before with different topic ideas. If it goes off topic – the facilitator should NOT interrupt. They are not there to stick to a single topic, the facilitator should just ensure the conversation doesn’t dry up.
No one likes more meetings, so this one needs to be made fun and something people want to do. Maybe try making it into a game using some of the Agile related planning games. (More about this here: A Meeting About Nothing: Team Building Without Team Building)
Books on Managing Virtual/Remote Team
- Influencing Virtual Teams: 17 Tactics That Get Things Done with Your Remote Employees
- Remote: Office Not Required
- Managing the Telecommuting Employee: Set Goals, Monitor Progress, and Maximize Profit and Productivity
5. Regular Team Updates
A larger monthly meeting where teams get together. This is more formal and guided. You want to provide updates to the team and allow for some back and forth questioning.
6. Reach Out
A call, a private IM, a quick email. A call can allow for a more fluid discussion on an idea, but you should reach out to someone and ask what they think if you get an idea. It could be your currently assigned ‘Employee Buddy” or the one-on-one coworker, but it should be someone.
7. Improve Your Tools
Desktop sharing tools, video conferencing, chat rooms – these can be good tools. Some work better than others. Don’t just choose the cheapest, choose what works for your situation.
You need collaborating tools. Google and Microsoft have options to let multiple people work on the same document at the same time. You can use it to draw out ideas with a small group of people. Zoho has tools that work that try to help on the collaboration front and they may be worth checking out. Slack can be an option, but it shouldn’t be the only method of chatting.
The point here is to not just settle with an IM tool, a desktop sharing tool, and a phone call. Collaborating on telecommuting teams needs to be more thought out than that. You are saving money in office space, put some of it to good use.
8. Make it Personal
Allow time before meetings start to talk about personal lives. I have telecommuted for a few companies. You can always tell which companies the people hate working for by how sociable they are with each other at the beginning of phone conferences. The really bad environments, the people get to work right away and get off the phone as soon as they can. They don’t socialize much with each other.
I have had telecommuting jobs where people have heard all about my outside work activities, and I have heard about theirs. I have also had remote jobs where my coworkers didn’t even know my wife was pregnant. No time to tell them, we have a meeting we want to hurry and get over.
This builds team cohesiveness. It makes the other person into a human and can bring the group together. A more cohesive team is more likely to reach out to others on the team to chat about random work ideas.
Lazy companies don’t think they have to change or adapt to new situations, and they won’t unless they are forced into it. They assume they can operate telecommuters just like they do in the office but fail to consider the differences in communication methods.
“We’ll just get WebEx and let them figure it out.”
You can get away with being lazy about communication when everyone works in the same room. I don’t think it works as well as people want to believe (Osmotic Communication: Flawed Communication Practices), but lazy communication works better in a single office than it does in a distributed team.
Hoover, Ryan. (2019). The Problems in Remote Working. https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/problems-remote-working-ryan-hoover/