Remote collaboration: It's not as hard as you think

White boards, conference rooms, and meetings times. When you think of collaboration, you imagine these things, with everyone together in one room, brainstorming and writing out ideas. In the modern mobile workforce, however, video calls, screen sharing and online chat are the cornerstones of collaboration. While one is no better than the other, it can be daunting to figure out the best way to facilitate effective and productive collaboration when no one is under the same roof. 

With remote and telecommuting work on the rise – “Regular work-at-home, among the non-self-employed population, has grown by 115 per cent since 2005, nearly 10 times faster than the rest of the workforce,” according to Global Workplace Analytics – this is not a challenge that can be ignored.

Challenge, however, isn’t the right word here because remote collaboration doesn’t have to be hard. In fact, all you need are a few of your most basic communication tools, including phone and email, along with a few regularly scheduled meetings to get everyone working together.

You’ll quickly realise that getting employees to collaborate virtually is similar to doing so in-person – meaning, you have the tools and skills, you just have to use them differently.

You don’t need special technology

It may seem like a hassle to connect with remote employees, but realistically, we connect and collaborate digitally most days of the week already. They key is finding which technology works best for your needs and elevating those tools to make collaboration easier. For example:

Email becomes chat. If you find it hard to brainstorm about ideas and projects via email – no one likes excessively long threads that are impossible to keep up with – switch to an internal chat platform like Slack or Google Hangouts instead. Here you can ask questions, get quick responses and create groups to connect employees more effectively. If you lose something, use CTRL-F to go back into the conversation and find whatever was previously discussed or shared.

Phone becomes video. Sometimes it’s hard to connect and collaborate when you can’t see the person’s face; and it’s especially challenging when you’re talking to more than one person, as people can easily talk over each other. Switch to Google Hangouts or another video client like Zoom, which feels more like an in-person conversation. With most video tools, you can connect 10+ people on one call, allowing you to have large department meetings, along with smaller brainstorm sessions or one-on-one check-ins.

File sharing may be one of the biggest concerns with remote collaboration and it can be a headache. That is, if you don’t have the right tools and a streamlined process in place. A tool like Hip Chat, for example, integrates file sharing with chat and API integration, making it an all-in-one tool that’s customisable and easy to use.

The value of Google’s App suite cannot be underestimated either. For remote collaboration, it doesn’t get easier or more accessible. With everyone shared on a doc, presentation or sheet, you can comment and make edits in real-time. To make this collaboration more effective and productive, you can use add-ons like the following:

  • MindMeister: Use this to turn any bulleted list into a mind map. When visualising a project, this makes everyone’s life easier.
  • Workflows: Automate the process of approval with documents and projects with this add-on: “Virtually chasing down sign-offs via email can become a full-time job with a deadline looming. This add-on creates an automated workflow, shepherding your document through the approval process without having to nag everyone,” says Michael Ansaldo of PC World. This add-on is available for Sheets.
  • HelloSign: Get the signatures you need without having to print, sign and re-scan documents with this Docs add-on. This is ideal for remote organisations working with freelance and contract workers.
  • Doc Secrets: If you need copy approved or edited, but it contains sensitive information, this add-on allows you to block that text. As such, you can get input and feedback from a variety of people without having to create multiple documents or edit out the information.

Routines make everyone’s life easier

Remote collaboration requires routine, meaning: Every Monday at 10am the marketing team meets; every first Wednesday of the month at noon the entire company gathers for 30 minutes; etc. Remote employees likely use their flexible working situation to make appointments during the day, run errands or take care of other obligations. With routines in place, you can be sure everyone is available to collaborate at the same time at least once a week or once a month.

Wade Foster, of Zapier, an entirely remote-based company, talks about how their company hosts hangouts every Thursday morning at nine o’clock to chat, do demos or hold interviews. He notes that this routine a way to boost culture among employees, despite being remote:

“These hangouts are also a good chance to learn something new. Each week someone inside the team does a lightning talk or demo on something interesting or if someone is in the running to join the team, we have them present a lightning talk.”

To get your processes in place, make a list of the various meetings you think would be most important for the organisation or your team. Then use a tool like Google Forms to get input about which days and times work best for everyone.

Read: How all start-ups can benefit from peer collaboration

Required working hours

There’s nothing more frustrating than needing the answer to something you’re working on, only to find the person who has the answer isn’t available. Accessibility is critical for collaboration among a remote team:

“There's nothing that disconnects us more, whether you're down the street or across the world, than being inaccessible. We practice this and we preach this. We try to put them [our employees] first and work within their time zones when possible,” says Ted Rollins, global entrepreneur and co-chairman and founding principal of Valeo Groupe.

‘Required working hours’ is one way to put employees first while making it possible or everyone to work within their time zones and connect and collaborate. With this rule in place, everyone has a specific part of the day to be online and available.

For example, this could be 9am to 11am Pacific Time, so employees on the East Coast aren’t being asked to work later and those on the West coast aren’t being asked to wake up too early.

You can implement this for each day of the week, just one, or a few, depending on where your workforce is located. If you have people working around the globe, it may be a challenge to have everyone online at one time every day. In this case, keep it to just one day to reduce stress among employees while still allowing for optimal collaboration. 

Engage every member of the team

It’s easy to get lost in shuffle as a remote worker. This is especially true for quiet people – in phone meetings or video calls, they’re more likely to get talked over, rather than in-person, where they can physically assert themselves.

It’s the leader’s job to help mitigate this issue: “The manager of a virtual team is like the conductor of an orchestra. He or she is the focal point of the team who needs to ensure everyone is playing to their strengths, and listening to everyone else’s cues,” says Hassan Osman, author of Influencing Virtual Teams: 17 Tactics That Get Things Done With Your Remote Employees.

As the conductor, you have to listen and connect:

Listen: Who’s been quiet? Who’s speaking up a lot? Who’s been calling a lot of meetings? Look for cues from your employees to be aware of what everyone needs and doesn’t need.

Connect: Connect with each employee individually once a week if possible. This is a chance for anyone who isn’t speaking up in meetings to share ideas or get feedback. This is also a chance to learn more about what makes your employees tick, and ensure that alike employees are able to collaborate with one another, allowing everyone to be most effective.

Time to collaborate

Remote collaboration doesn’t have to be a burden for partial or fully virtual teams. Some of the most basic tools can facilitate the process, bringing employees together and building a culture of communication company-wide. Remember to be the conductor of your remote-workforce orchestra, ensuring everyone is heard and involved.

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