Remote work is here to stay, no doubts about that.

So now that leaders and teams no longer look at working in a virtual setting as a temporary solution for the COVID pandemic crisis but actually wish to continue working in such a work model, some questions arise.

How can we deal with the change of setting? And what has really changed in the way people interact with each other?

There are still many leaders making an extreme effort to keep the same face-to-face initiatives while working remotely, while others have felt an increased need to try something different.

Get To Know Your People and Be Present

Let me share with you an example of one of the leaders that I coach.

So, this leader was saying, “Catching up with people is taking a lot of my time. As a result, my days are quite packed, and I’m spending half an hour with each of them every week, plus the team meetings. I mean, we have really connected well over the pandemic crisis, but I need to focus on my own work. Any advice for that?”

And I asked her a simple question, “How did you do it before in a physical setting, face-to-face?” She stopped and went quiet for a minute. And then she said, “Oh, I didn’t actually do it.”

So if you have 12 employees on your team, spending 30 minutes with each of them weekly totals 6 hours per week of bonding.

After she realized the impact of this change, she said, “Wow, I’m spending six-hour quality time with my team, yet we’re getting more stuff done than ever before. And yes I’m busy, but I’m actually not working extra hours.”

This is a simple example of how many leaders have shifted the way they drive their teams in a remote setting. In an effort to not lose the connection with the people, leaders have started setting up catch-up calls and team meetings with the purpose of bonding and supporting each other.

Create an Interactive Online Environment

As a fully remote worker, I am pleased to find that the resistance to online settings has decreased.

In our organization, we used to run a lot of in-person workshops; however, after COVID they had to be moved to a remote setting. This meant a reassessment of how and why we ran these sessions: what was the expected learning outcome in such a different setting? We were known for doing very interactive workshops. The question was, how could we translate the same interactivity into the virtual world?

How many times have you heard, “Online training is not as interactive, good, and effective as face-to-face?”

Well, we didn’t accept that and committed ourselves to changing the mindset of our partners and clients.

I can recall the numerous below-average face-to-face training sessions that I attended in my career.

So, is it actually the case that face-to-face training is more effective, or is it purely the fact that we remember some of the great good in-person sessions we had?

Haven’t we all had very poor face-to-face ones as well? Is it the setting or the way it is facilitated?

In our particular case, our participants never said: “I wish this had been face-to-face, it would have been way more interactive.”

I’ve been blessed to have been part of virtual teams for some years now. These teams have bonded quite well and some of us are still in contact.

Many people claim that it does take energy and conscious effort to lead remote teams. It does, but the truth is that it takes the same amount of energy and effort as when you choose to connect in a physical setting. I learned a great deal about this myself during my Global Executive MBA at the IE Business School.

There are, of course, elements that I do enjoy doing in a face-to-face setting. For example, at the beginning of a client engagement, it is nice to meet the participants in person.

However, with the development of technology, it is possible that we are fine-tuning the new norm and that some of these first encounters become less needed and necessary?

Begin Each Meeting with an Ice-Breaker

We have our team weekly meetings at the Great Shift which take one hour. We call them a lobby meeting, like if you’re meeting someone in the lobby on the way to your office desk and have a quick chat to go.

Before we begin those meetings, we always ask everyone an icebreaker question where we talk about our days, talk about how we feel, or simply ask random questions to have a laugh and get to know the person behind the screen. Understand that they are a human too and connect with them. This can be the most random question, such as, “What’s your favorite movie?” or “What’s your go-to TV series when you’re down?” Just the other week the question was, “If you were to be a cake, which cake would you be?”

Little things go a long way, that for us is replacing the casual, the water cooler.

Set Opportunities for Regular Interactions

What do some of our partners do? I was recently speaking to a startup in Singapore that has developed a virtual setting meant to connect anyone in the team at any time. It is like an office where people can go “sit” and have a conversation. So, employees can access the virtual network anytime to engage with others, exchange ideas, have meetings, or simply chat.

There is also this other startup that randomly matches people in the whole organization for 10-minute catch-ups. It’s completely voluntary, but these are the things that can be implemented without much difficulty, and, in some way, partly replace the daily interactions we used to have in an office setting.

In our organization, we also use internal communication software, Slack. I’ve personally used this for many years now, in different teams and in different settings, including in some of the mentoring I do in startups and on different professional networks. It not only makes the communication flow more efficiently, but it’s also a great means to share non-company updates.

Make Work Fun

I’ve mentored a company in the US that had 10 different recreation Slack channels, and its employees found so much about each other through them. Just by looking at the channel, I couldn’t believe people would connect so easily.

We have also created different channels in our team’s Slack channel from funny photos on the #frozen-screens-on-zoom channel to #bookjunkies where we share our best readings, and the #mental_health channel where we check in with each other, share our struggles, and challenges and post what we did to pamper ourselves on our monthly mental health day, and even a #ladies_lounge (I have no idea what happens there).

While it’s up to all everyone in the team to contribute and come up with those channels, they are captained by our project manager, Helena Cada, who meticulously keeps an eye on the app and looks at ways to improve it.

Build Trust

Yet another question that arises when working remotely is how to adjust to working with team members you’ve never met in person.

Of course, it’s great when you have met your team before, but when not, how can you actually make it work?

It’s arguably the same concept. There are a lot of things you can do in a virtual setting to build a meaningful connection. So far, I have only had the chance to meet one of my team members in person due to the travel restriction induced by Covid-19; however, none of the other collaborators have met before and I still believe this is the best team I have ever worked with.

I always make a conscious effort to build a solid relationship with every team member we onboard by scheduling regular one-on-one meetings. It is also a common practice for everyone to support and be empathic with each other. In reality, I believe that creating empathy and psychological safety is the foundation of a great team and the ultimate ingredient to building trust, and I believe this holds true for everyone on our team. Even our interview process is designed for applicants to meet as many team members as possible during the interview process.

Set Clear Expectations on Communication

There are incredible tools to learn more about each of your team members.

Take the 16 Personalities Test, for example, which we normally use in our team to better understand each other, and understand how we can better integrate everyone’s different ways of working.

Another important thing we also do is a working agreement, where you discuss with your collaborators how they want to be communicated to and with what kind of medium they want to use. For example, I have never in a team meeting forced anyone to turn on their cameras and that’s not something we demand anyone to do, but people voluntarily put their cameras on. Although I must admit I prefer seeing people on camera, my belief is that people should have the freedom to turn the camera off at times if they feel so. I would estimate that cameras are on 80% of the meeting times, yet, it’s not a mandate. 

Let Adults be Adults

Everyone is treated the exact same way in our company, regardless of their level of experience. And everyone responds the exact same way and treats each other accordingly.

Ricardo Semler used to say that when you treat people like grown-ups, they actually act like grownups. And I’m a strong believer in that, that if we treat people like adults, they will act like responsible adults. So far, from my own experience, this is true.

In our team, everyone is accountable for the work they have committed to do and has full responsibility to perform their tasks and ask for help and input whenever needed. By recognizing everyone is human and that there is always room and space for improvement, we openly discuss our mistakes without feeling judged; we even regularly do it in our monthly retrospective sessions.

Every team member behaves like a responsible adult that is empowered and capable of making both wise and bold decisions. And because transparency is encouraged, every one of us feels comfortable communicating our real thoughts and ideas regarding any process we are required feedback from.

And all this is done remotely without strict supervision or any sort of tracking system.

The knowledge and insights shared here with you are based on hands-on practices that have been working with the GS team and the teams we coach, so we do hope they will resonate with you.

We understand that every organization is different and, therefore, has different needs. So, if you are looking for solutions on how to build more cohesive remote teams, feel free to reach out, we’re happy to support you.