Before “working remotely,” there was “telecommuting,” a term coined by a NASA engineer in the early 1970s. Later in that decade, IBM let a handful of employees skip the drive to the office and work from home. With the launch of the internet in 1983, people started buying home computers in droves, and WFH became more accessible.
Clearly, remote work was a thing long before a global pandemic made it the only thing for many employees. Nevertheless, the COVID-19 pandemic definitely accelerated the phenomenon, which is almost certain to persist. Today, many companies still have employees working from home. This means there hasn’t been much in the way of face-to-face interaction. Co-workers aren’t hanging around the water cooler, grabbing lunch together, or going to happy hour on a whim.
So how can companies keep their teams collaborating and producing quality work when not everyone’s coming into the office? Here are three ways to keep remote teams humming along.
1. Keep Everyone on the Same Page, No Matter Where They Are
Zoom has its limitations. It’s a great tool for teams to see and hear each other while brainstorming ideas and solutions on a project. But we all know that’s not where the real work is done.
At some point, each team member produces a piece of work that becomes part of the full picture. To keep that on track, they need to be using intuitive project management software. With it, project collaboration, goal setting, and progress tracking are integrated into a tool used by everyone on the team.
Ideally, every member can see how their piece of the project meshes with the whole. Updates and communication in real time help teams and managers check items off the to-do list. Accomplishments are celebrated, and those responsible for lagging tasks are encouraged to do their part to achieve the overall goal.
Project management software is a great way to keep everyone in the know, all day, every day. That’s a plus when you can’t walk down the hall to talk to another member of the team. It can not only keep the team on the same page, but flipping to the next one in sync as well.
2. Be Sociable
Teams are collaborative by nature, but that collaboration doesn’t occur only 9 to 5. Great teams are productive on and off the field, forging personal and professional relationships. That means managers can’t overlook the challenge of a remote team’s need for social interaction.
Social interaction isn’t limited to online happy hours or remote karaoke. Companies need to figure out how to replicate the social interaction teams enjoy in a shared physical space. Consider the water cooler and breakroom chatter or the popping in and out of cubicles or offices.
Solutions might include having an unmuted, open video connection between two or three homebound co-workers. They can work and chat with one another in real time, just as they would if they shared an office. Or they can gather at an appointed time to eat lunch and visit a virtual breakroom.
Managers should encourage team discussions and more informal interactions even if they aren’t occurring in a shared physical space. Company leaders can then provide the resources and technology necessary to make team collaboration easier. Some of the best ideas come from connections in places other than the conference room.
3. Leave No Team Member Behind
For a while, everyone was in the same remote boat during the height of the pandemic. Now, however, some employees have made it back to the office at least part of the time. That can present some challenges for managers charged with making sure every member of the team feels part of it.
Extra effort is required to keep completely remote team members connected with those who have returned to the office. One solution might be installing a wormhole — an ever-present videoconference to the office — to enhance interaction. The link also allows managers to keep track of every team member, no matter their location.
Managers can invite remote team members to come into the office periodically, even if only for a couple of hours. It’s important to have designated workspaces available for them if and when they do. It just might give them some sense of the before-times normalcy and let them stretch their office muscles again.
Not all remote workers may feel safe going to the office yet, and managers should respect that choice. The open invitation to do so, or a minimally hybrid schedule for some remote employees, might boost morale and productivity. More opportunities for remote workers to connect with other team members means no one will be left behind.
Remote work has come a long way since Jack Nilles, that NASA engineer, helped pen the book, “The Telecommunications-Transportation Tradeoff.” A contemporaneous review of the book asserted that: “Broad-brush pictures of future urban society are presented, often portraying telecommunications as a major factor in the everyday living environments of inhabitants but without ever considering the way that people come to terms with these new media.”
Four decades later, the way we live and work has been altered significantly. Most people have “come to terms with these new media” without kicking and screaming. Remote workers, in particular, have boldly faced a reckoning with the technology that makes it all possible.
The pandemic irrevocably altered the way employee teams work, but the need for productive collaboration will never change. Technology is indispensable in keeping co-workers connected regardless of physical location. By combining flexibility and 21st-century ingenuity, companies can keep the team train moving down the track.