Building Collaboration with Remote Teams

TL;DR: Provide the tools, empower people to use them and embrace remote work for what it is - remote.

Steve Jobs designed Apple Headquarters to maximise the length of time it would take people to get to the bathroom. He did this to increase collaboration stemming from running into others in the corridor.

Since the pandemic, remote working skyrocketed. Owl Labs recorded in 2021 that almost 70% of full-time workers in the US were working from home. And based on the stats from job boards such as, you can see a massive uptick in remote job opportunities that are not dying down.

But the question is, how can you "bump into" people in the corridor in the remote-first working world? Many say that weekly meetings to keep people aligned are the answer. But I disagree, meetings are viewed with disdain. The same study by Owl Labs found that 80% of remote workers wanted at least a day per week without any meetings at all.

Instead, I'd suggest a different approach.

  1. Make communication public by default. The main rebuff of remote work is that the communication is too "formalized", recorded and preserved. People use that excuse to communicate only in direct messages. But, putting messages in public channels, allows everyone to be informed and to take part. Additionally, making individuals comfortable with public communication will open the doorway for asynchronous work. It will discourage people from calling meetings simply to gather a consensus or input.
  2. Don't recreate the watercooler. Commonly, I've seen teams create a #watercooler chat in Slack, an informal space to post memes and have a chit-chat. Although in ultra-large businesses I've seen these spaces improve individual relationships, I have not seen them successfully increase collaboration. These spaces are attempting to recreate an in-person space. Whilst well-intentioned, these spaces do not translate to the online realm. Embrace remote work for what it is, remote. It will naturally take time for an in-person organisation to change into the "remote" frame of mind.
  3. Avoid hybrid working. Where possible, avoid having some of the team in an office and the rest remote. I've been on both sides of the office divider for this one. And it doesn't do well on either. On the office side, you can often be blocked by a remote worker not working the same hours and not having the tools to perform a task asynchronously. But on the remote side, you have a constant FOMO for all the undocumented decisions that have been made. Pushing all this communication asynchronous and online alleviates these issues and keeps everyone up to date.
  4. Use the tools. We are all using Zoom and Slack. But that's not the end. There is a myriad of tools to help you unite a remote team. Use Google Drive for documents and presentations (share them without a meeting!), Tuple for pair programming and GitHub for tickets and code. Directing people toward these channels (asynchronous) and away from meetings (synchronous) will accelerate collaboration for your team by accomplishing meaningful objectives.
  5. Build a documentation culture. In an office, decisions can be made and passed around in small conversations. In remote teams, that vanishes. So, make sure that every decision is documented in a consistent and precise way. Encourage people to write about problems they've solved and how they solved them. Help people to write up accurate guides on getting up and running with a system. And document various approaches to a particular ticket. Make sure you lead by example here. Don't rely on Slack to store a decision. If you ever hear the phrase "I forget exactly what was said", it is a chance to write it down. Further, address this at its source by making sure to hire individuals with good writing skills.

Not all these techniques will work with your team. I encourage you to experiment and see what works.

Overall, embrace the work situation you are in and capitalize on its advantages. If your business can be in-person, capitalize on the fact that it will likely be more collaborative. If you have a remote business, embrace a diverse global workforce, lower costs and asynchronous work for increased productivity.