How to Build A Successful Remote Team

8 min read
August 24, 2020

Working from home…for many of us pre-COVID-19, this was the dream. No commuting. Casual Friday every day. Working from your bed.

Then reality hit, and you found yourself managing a team of people who may or may not be wearing pants right now. You’re probably wondering what you’ve gotten yourself into. How do you lead a remote team of people who are scattered across time zones and zip codes? Won’t people feel left out and disconnected when they are relegated to tiny talking squares on a Zoom call?  

Whether you’ve been growing a remote team from the beginning or you’ve only recently decided to go remote, you’re not alone. With the right strategy and tools, you can build a healthy, happy, productive team without a shared office.

For those of you who are still considering if remote work is a good fit for your team, consider a few remote work statistics:

  • At-home workers reported higher job satisfaction, and employee attrition decreased by 50%.
  • 69% of millennials reported that they would trade other work benefits for flexible workspace options.
  • A study by Stanford found a 13% increase in productivity from the people working at home.
  • 82% of remote workers admitted having lower levels of stress while working from home. 
  • Remote workers saved an average of $4,523.04 on fuel each year by eliminating their commutes with the added benefit of reducing emissions! 

Sounds great, right? While there are substantial benefits to offering remote work options, there are also unique challenges for dispersed teams.

Remote employees have been shown to be happier and more productive, but only if they are actively engaged and have a strong sense of connection and belonging. Remote work isn’t simply doing the same work that you would do in the office from the comfort of your couch – at home water cooler conversation is non-existent and opportunities for impromptu collaboration are limited. Creativity can be hampered by the formality of setting up scheduled meetings to brainstorm rather than dropping by a coworker’s desk. Social connection falters when the only conversations people are having are directly related to their work. Over time, managers lose touch with their team members’ emotional states. Lists of daily work tasks become mundane and removed from the satisfaction of accomplishing big-picture goals and objectives. Work-life boundaries begin to blur.

Do these factors make working from home difficult? Yes. Is it impossible? No.

How do you find the balance between the perks and problems? The key to success is creating a culture of connection, and developing that culture starts on day one. Setting the stage for remote team members to thrive begins from the moment a prospective team member engages with your company during the hiring process. If you haven’t already, take a minute to ask yourself: what does the hiring experience look like from their perspective? After a candidate submits their application, do they receive an acknowledgment with a timeline for the next steps? Do they receive contact information for someone on the team who can answer their questions? How soon do they have the opportunity to connect with someone by phone or video? How much exposure do they have to the team’s culture by the time they interview? If new team members don’t have the opportunity to visit your office and meet their future coworkers in person, how can they evaluate whether or not your team is a fit? 

While technology has made the interview process much simpler with the option to meet prospective team members via video call regardless of their physical location, it isn’t a complete replacement for an in-person interview. Adding a peer interview component can help round out the process, even if the interview is structured as a less formal opportunity that allows team members time to chat with the applicant over a virtual coffee or lunch. Work samples are also useful to gauge how well the individual communicates and how comfortable they are completing projects outside of a supervised office setting. 

Once the choice has been made and a new team member is preparing for their first day, it’s critical to get off on the right foot. Early impressions are lasting and creating a sense of belonging for a new remote team member is a battle that can be won or lost before long before the first performance review. Welcome packages are a great way to share your excitement and enthusiasm with a new hire. If your team has logoed apparel or a fun branded coffee mug, consider sending a few items with a friendly greeting card in advance of the team member’s start date. If the logistics of shipping present a challenge, a brief, warm welcome video sent by email can share a sense of the team’s personality. Most importantly, make sure that there is a positive handoff from the hiring team to the new recruit’s direct manager or the HR team so there isn’t a lag in communication or confusion over who is responsible for responding to questions and coordinating technology and scheduling. If your management team is lacking bandwidth to make introductions and smooth the transition process, consider assigning your new hire a current team member as a “buddy” to help field general company questions and facilitate meeting the rest of the team.

After onboarding is complete, the remote experience for both new and existing team members requires several key components to stay on track. The primary requirement for success is exceptional communication. Remote work often relies heavily on asynchronous communication options, which are convenient for working with a geographically diverse team, but they can strip important clues and context from messaging and leave team members confused or out of alignment with the rest of organization. Prioritizing email or Slack over live conversations can also create a break in the feedback loop as it limits the openings for managers to provide critical performance-related feedback in the absence of face-to-face connection. With so many messages flying back and forth, it can also be challenging to ensure everyone who is associated with a project or responsibility receives all of the relevant information they need to make decisions and stay on track. 

Having a clear, consistent, comprehensive internal communication structure is essential. A good place to start is establishing a regular meeting cadence. Routinely holding virtual meetings with all team members provides an opportunity to connect day-to-day work with broader company objectives and offers a chance for collaboration across roles. Consistent one-on-one meetings with a direct manager are especially important for remote workers as they allow those in leadership roles to get a pulse on both the team member’s overall well-being and their work-related roadblocks and wins. Team newsletters are a great way to supplement real-time communication and share important updates with the whole team as well as fun facts and team member tidbits like birthday wishes or client kudos. You might also consider implementing a project management software that provides broad visibility across major company objectives and initiatives and a way to organize communication around specific projects or tasks. 

One of the most glaring differences between an office environment and a work-from-home setting is the lack of spontaneous social connection between team members. For some individuals, the lack of contact is a plus! Infrequent or nonexistent casual conversations and drop-in desk visitors can mean fewer distractions and more focus, but even the most introverted team members benefit from building a sense of rapport and trust with their coworkers. It can be difficult to replicate the natural communication and relationship-building that occur through in-person interactions, but there are a few different ways that leaders can facilitate and support developing psychological closeness. 

In addition to virtual happy hours or book clubs, team members may appreciate innovative options such as virtual coworking through open Zoom rooms, randomized virtual coffee pairings, a virtual cook-a-long, or virtual group workouts. Messaging systems like Slack can be used to create fun communication channels to encourage sharing snippets of life outside of work through photos of pets, family, or vacation. There are even apps and other tools available for generating spontaneous trivia questions or writing prompts for sharing ideas and stories. Creating an employee engagement team is a great way to get team members involved and excited about getting to know each other better and will likely produce even more creative ways to get team members to connect.

The final area where many remote employees struggle is setting boundaries between life and work. The psychological distance that office workers experience at the end of the day when they leave their desks and commute home can be hard to replicate when that desk may also be the kitchen table. There are two primary types of people when it comes to working from home. Segmentors tend to be able to detach from work easily. They set firm working hours and like to have a separate workspace that physically differentiates their business space from their leisure space. Segmentors also tend to report higher levels of overall satisfaction with their well-being. Integrators, on the other hand, are people who have more fluid transitions between work and the rest of their lives. Integrators frequently find themselves thinking about work during their non-work hours. They tend to be comfortable with working during their off-hours, as long as they have the flexibility to take personal time during traditional work hours as needed, too. Unfortunately, Integrators’ approach to combining their life and work can lead to burnout as they cannot distance themselves from work-related stress, which diminishes their ability to recover properly.

In a full-time remote setting, there are pros and cons to both approaches. While Segmentors are more skilled at setting clear boundaries between work and life, they may struggle to find an environment in their home that allows them to create the physical separation that they crave, and they may be more stressed by family interruptions that occur during their working hours. Conversely, Intregrators often appreciate the flexibility that working from home provides and are less likely to be stressed by work demands that occur outside of their normal work schedule, but they are more likely to find turning work “off” to be a challenge. 

As a manager, helping your team members identify how they view the balance of their work and life is a good first step to creating a work environment that allows them to thrive. Each type of team member will require a different strategy. Segmentors appreciate clear expectations around communication that allow them to disconnect without feeling pressured to check email or answer calls after hours. If renting a coworking space is an option, Segmentors are likely to find the designated work area beneficial. Integrators may require accountability to actively disengage from work. Google’s people analytics team uses a goal-setting technique that they call “One Simple Thing” where employees share a personal goal related to work-life balance with their manager, and the manager acts as an accountability partner to help them stay on track. Another helpful exercise is for Integrators to make a to-do list at the end of every day as a way to “empty” all of the incomplete tasks and projects from their thoughts and free their minds from the cycle of work-related thinking.

While leading a remote team is a different experience than managing from a traditional office, building a strong, connected, and resilient team is still possible. Managers who can adapt to the challenges of building long-distance relationships can offer team members a supportive environment that is both productive and flexible. By understanding how everyone works best from home, leaders can build a culture of communication, connection, and well-being that allows teams to reach their personal and professional goals.

Ashley Hunter

About the Author

As the Talent Development Manager for XY Planning Network, Ashley champions the company’s culture and values by building and executing training and development strategies focused on motivating, engaging, and educating XY’s committed and high performing team. She is a self-professed “geek” with a love of all things related to learning and development. Outside of work, Ashley is frequently spotted petting strangers’ dogs, paddle boarding, backcountry skiing, reading science fiction novels, and photographing pretty much everything around beautiful Bozeman, Montana.

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