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How to remotely collaborate with your team

As businesses try to lessen the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, kitchens have replaced work desks for many employees. Collaborative work that was previously done around conference tables, in shared workspaces, and during desk-side chats is now done virtually. Working with teams in different spaces has its unique set of challenges, but there are some benefits.

The good news: Your best practices for collaborating in teams largely do not change when working remotely. The most effective teams still boast a balance of individual and shared time. Teamwork still requires effective interpersonal communication. And collaborative work will still rely on a combination of individual work styles and contributions.

What has changed is the tools you use to collaborate and communicate. We have put together some ideas and tips to help your team thrive when they can’t be together.

Pick your tool

No matter your collaboration challenge, there is likely a tool out there to overcome it.

There are plenty of video and conference call tools that allow you to meet with team members without being in the same space. If you are not already, consider using shared calendars and encourage your team to block work time as well as regularly scheduled start times, breaks and other items. Cloud-based file storage allows team members to access the most recent version of files without eating up email storage space. Project management tools allow you to assign tasks, share status updates and even collaborate on notes. Shared message boards are ideal for touching base or holding continuing conversations without scheduling a meeting. And good old email or phone calls can be a great way to connect one-on-one.

We recommend using a combination of these tools, as no single one is a catchall solution — match your message to the channel. For example, shared message boards are perfect for discussions that are not particularly timely or to ask a question of the group. They should not replace group discussions about critical projects, however. Likewise, group calls and video chats can be wonderful for team discussions, but they can easily become burdensome when they get off track. And emails are good for sending noncritical information, so long as they do not become a distraction.

Connect with your team

One of the most important things to effectively collaborate remotely is to stay engaged with your team. Schedule regular meetings to touch base. These meetings should start and end on time, and they should be scheduled at a time when everyone (or most people) can join.

Stay focused during these meetings and table items that do not require the whole team or require a deeper dive. When your team members are working from home, there will be unavoidable interruptions like shaky internet, pets, children and partners. Team members should do what they can to avoid these, and team leaders should be understanding of less-than-ideal circumstances.

Aside from connecting over work, remote team members may also need to connect in a more personal way. Shared message boards are a great place to host “water cooler” chat topics for team members to connect. Consider setting aside time during team calls for nonwork round robins before getting down to business. Some teams even hold virtual casual get togethers over celebrations, lunch or coffee breaks.

If you lead a team, you may need to schedule additional one-on-one time with your members to support them during this difficult time. Some of your team may find they struggle without immediate access to team members, the constant buzz of office work, and a clear line between work and personal. Others will undoubtedly find working remotely to be more efficient, with long stretches of uninterrupted time to focus and the perks of being at home with loved ones, windows and music as loud as they like.

Even in the best situations, though, accessing remote tools, learning new skills and finding the right balance can create stress for remote workers. With the additional emotional burden of working during a national disaster, this time can be particularly trying for many. Be prepared to offer your team members ideas, to facilitate connections, provide support or just listen with a sympathetic ear.

Consider Your medium

How you communicate with your team is as important as what you communicate. Set up an agreement with your team to communicate expected response times and urgent issue protocols. If you are using written communication, use complete sentences that are clear and concise. Avoid jargon or slang whenever possible.

When you are on a call, make sure folks are engaged by asking open-ended questions and calling on those you haven’t heard from. Remember to pause before responding when you are on a video call, as shaky connections can lead to cutting someone off before they are done speaking. Phone calls are a great way to connect with someone one-on-one, so long as they are not interrupting someone’s work. Consider scheduling calls so your team member has time to reach a stopping point.

When it comes down to it, we are all working out ways of doing the jobs we love in new ways. Think of this as an opportunity to strengthen your team and expand your skill base. The reward of trying out new technology and new practices may be well worth the risk.