As I am writing this it is late 2020, and circumstances have forced thousands companies to adopt remote working, even if temporarily. By definition this is a more isolated setup than the alternative, and not everyone’s cup of tea. However several companies, such as Github and Zapier, have been operating this way for years, so it is clearly a viable option.
So, how do you manage the transition to such a mode of working? I have been working at a company that shifted to a remote-first setting two years ago, and I was recently on the Italian-speaking podcast SpaghettiCode to talk about the shift. We covered a lot of topics, including the importance of trust, good documentation, and the challenges of working asynchronously. We also discussed how to maintain the relationships with colleagues and how to foster what the folk at Balsamiq call “teaminess”.
I am a people person, so for me this last point is particularly important and something I will expand on.
Let’s start with something obvious: communication is important, and it helps to be proactive in reaching out to others. You do not always have to wait until the next scheduled meeting to contact someone, especially when it comes to people with whom you do not interact often. Perhaps you are curious about how often the Success team encounters a certain issue, or want to congratulate a Sales Rep for closing a big deal. My advise is to just reach out, they will usually appreciate the interest. Just don’t expect or demand an instant response, as people have their own thing going on, especially when you don’t share a timezone.
A corollary to this is that when you are on the receiving end, try to be responsive. No-one likes to feel like they are talking into the void, so an acknowledgement of the message goes a long way, even if you might be too busy or unable to help them.
Opportunities for ‘keeping it real(time)’
I have worked with a team where our scheduled stand-up calls evolved into a more versatile time slot which we would adapt to the needs of the day. These would always include a stand-up component, consisting of the relatively standard discussion of current tickets in different stages of a Kanban board, while also providing us with an opportunity for shooting the breeze or a starting point for deeper dives into current work challenges.
The main benefit of this arrangement was that it provided us with a regular opportunity for interaction which was flexible enough to allow us to build our relationships beyond just the status of tickets. That being said views and desires revolving around stand-ups (and meetings) vary a lot, so you have to see what works in your setting. This takes us to my last point.
Variety is the spice of life
Ultimately, you get to know your peers by interacting with them in different ways and in different formats. Just as with the stand-up example above, the key is to create opportunities for interaction, even through something like shared weekly virtual coffee sessions. People are different so it’s good if opportunities vary in type and frequency.
I’ve heard of teams playing games such as Among Us, or doing virtual coffee tastings. At ChartMogul, we even ran a company-wide hackathon. Online tools make these things a lot easier than they used to be. I recently attended Mind the Product’s online conference, and perhaps the best thing about that was attending it and discussing it with colleagues, some of whom I’ve never met in person!
A nifty tool for Slack that deserves a shoutout is donut.com, which pairs employees for one-off one-on-one sessions. It might feel a little corny at the start, but it can really help removing the friction in getting to know and interacting with your colleagues.
Benefits beyond the individual
Building relationships with your colleagues is not only good for scratching a socialising itch. It can make people more productive as they support each other at work and share information across the organisation, which offsets the disadvantages of getting distracted more often. Apart from making teams stronger, it also decreases staff turnover, and helps maintain motivation levels. Therefore staff interactions are not just something fun, but something worth investing in. This includes occasionally meeting in person (circumstances allowing). Whether you do regular company off-sites, meet at conferences, or organise smaller team re-unions, all of these all go a long way in breaking down barriers. They will also make everything listed above a lot easier.