Those who are against remote work are right about one thing: There really is no substitute for face-to-face interaction with someone where you are. All those nonverbal cues that we’ve evolved over eons to pick up on. The side conversations about hobbies, family, sports, TV … you know, the non-work stuff. Just existing in the same place as your coworkers. It definitely helps to bond a team together.
HOWEVER. Being physically together with your team is not necessary for success; there are successful, all-remote teams (and companies) out there (see Gitlab, Basecamp). It also isn’t sufficient for success, as evidenced by the legions of failed software projects which, despite everyone being stacked into one building, ultimately failed.
The best argument one could make, perhaps, is that co-location increases the odds of success. I am, in fact, quite the proponent of increasing your odds of success – that’s why you stay in school, say, or don’t smoke. So, if you and your employer are considering or implementing remote work, you’d need to use other tactics to make up for the (possibly) decreased odds of success from having a distributed team where no one is in the same place.
The primary tactic to employ is to consciously make up for those missing side conversations and cues that are harder to read over a video hangout. It is helpful and effective to intentionally overcommunicate when working remotely.
This doesn’t mean to become a incessant fountain of vacuous emails and phone calls. That’s as bad as being that loud coworker who won’t stop talking about the latest episode of Such-and-Such or the Ludicrous Display Last Night. It means to take steps to actively fill in the gaps that are created when you can’t just lean over and ask a question, or answer a question. Here are some essential steps to take.
- Be present in a chat window. For example, my team has a persistent chat room where we can ask and answer questions, or make quick announcements. This is the closest analogue to all sitting in the same physical room, without the coughing and keyboard clackering. While this is a key practice for overcommunicating, it’s just as important to not let chat take over your time (looking at you, Slack). Sometimes you are busy, and it’s good to hang up a virtual Do Not Disturb sign when necessary.
- Don’t hesitate to hop on a video call. Text chat and email are great for what they are great for, but back-and-forth, involved conversations work better using our voices. An audio conference call is OK, but a video call is better; it’s more like everyone is together. Just make sure to look presentable.
- Document more. Even in a standard workplace, it’s common for decisions made in a meeting to not get written down, and that can cause problems because everyone tends to remember the past differently. Documenting plans, decisions, and meeting minutes becomes even more important for remote workers, since the lack of physical presence makes their experiences vary more. Also, maybe they all can’t make it (because they are asleep halfway around the world), so they need the record to stay informed. A good video call system should permit recording, and a wiki or shared storage is great for writing everything down to share with everybody.
- Don’t stick only to work topics. It may take bravery, but having a discussion or email thread about something random helps a team gel, and takes the place of those metaphorical water cooler discussions. An easy starter topic is linking to some semi-work-related blog article, which was a pretty good read and you thought you’d share, and so on. Then you move on to a webinar video, or some interesting news from your field, or some resource about a hobby you enjoy, or information about a vacation. Eventually, once you’re sharing cat videos and using emoji as your team’s secret vocabulary, you know that you’ve got a good culture going.
- Follow up with confirmations on actions, decisions, and discussions. Email threads and chat conversations can sometimes just fritter away without a solid conclusion, especially without some leader-ish person running them like an in-person meeting. Be sure to close out remote discussions with a summary, next steps, and the like, to be sure that everyone is in agreement. Again, this is a great practice even for a co-located team, but more important for a remote set of coworkers.
- Say hello and good night. Mindfully practice those little niceties that are automatic when you’re with someone.
There are plenty of other useful overcommunication practices that you can discover, but I think this is a good starter set to think about. Even though you are sitting by yourself somewhere, you’re still part of a team, and expanded communication is the way to make it feel like you are with everyone, working alongside them. Technology has granted us lots of ways to communicate that make achieving that feeling, that spirit, possible. Once you have that, you’ve beaten the odds.