Working remotely, also known as telecommuting, is the process of performing regular work duties from a location other than a central office. Working remotely can take place at home, coffee shops, shared workplaces and more. But now more than ever, people are finding themselves working from home.
With the SARS-CoV-19 pandemic restricting office availability, many workers are working remotely, leaving the house only when essential. This change may affect workers who already worked remotely, but what does it mean for project teams who previously communicated largely in-person? There are many myths and pitfalls involved with working from home, and even more things to be aware of and prepare for to ensure that your project team remains focused and productive.
Here are 5 tips for effective remote teamwork.
1. Use the Best Form of Communication
The biggest change to adapt to when transitioning to remote work is maintaining healthy and productive communication between team members. Traditional office spaces allow team members – including project managers – to pass each other in the hall, peek into each other’s cubicles and meet at the water cooler during breaks. Remote workers do not have the same luxury to facilitate frequent intuitive communication between team members.
As such, it is important for project teams to leverage the wide array of remote productivity and communication tools to meet their communication needs. The give key forms of communication are:
- Video chat
- Instant messaging
- Project management tools
Video chat software includes Zoom, Google Meet and Microsoft Teams. This form of communication is ideal for meetings between 3 or more people and should only be used when scheduled ahead of time. When possible, team members should have webcams and be in a well-lit environment wearing clothes appropriate to the team culture.
Instant messaging can be accomplished through Slack, Facebook or even texting. Instant messaging is useful when a quick response is needed to an issue and is not ideal for long conversations. Conversations longer than a few minutes should be done over phone, or even email if the response is not urgent. Team members should set expectations as to what hours they will be available.
Email is best for communication that can wait at least a day. Email is a good option for when you need feedback within the week and are okay with the recipient doing it at their own pace. Email threads should have a single subject and other subjects should have a new email thread created for them. Email is also great if the primary purpose is to inform rather than persuade or discuss.
Phone calls are convenient for one-on-one meetings that don’t require the participants to share any work. They’re good for resolving specific problems or coordinating between two people. Phone calls between 3 or more people should be conducted via video chat if possible, and should not be initiated without both parties confirming their availability first.
Project Management Tools
Project management software like Asana or Trello are helpful when working on projects remotely. They typically allow for tasks to be created and assigned to team members and the whole team can see when a task has been assigned or finished. Conversations can be held under each task and project resources such as links and files can be shared to the group.
2. Address the Challenges of Remote Work
There are many challenges that may crop up when working on a team project remotely. These should be identified and addressed by the team members as a group or individually to ensure productivity when working from home.
Working from home can be distracting and unproductive under the best of circumstances. Whether it’s social media feeds, noisy neighbors or just the lack of pressure from knowing your boss can’t look over your shoulder at any time during the day. Compound this with kids and other housemates being home all the time and it’s more difficult than ever.
Where possible, you should try to establish a quiet, isolated part of the house to setup your computer, away from distractions. Invest in a pair of noise-canceling headphones – if you can still get them on Amazon – and whatever else you need to stay comfortable and focused working from home. Even if that’s not possible, set expectations with the people you live with of when and where you’ll be working, so they know not to distract you. Remember: just because the kids can’t go anywhere doesn’t mean they can’t go outside!
If you are a parent in a multi-parent household, try to set a schedule for who takes care of the kids and who works at any given time. By alternating work and childcare hours, you can balance work and home life.
Balancing Work and Life
Work/life balance is a lot easier to maintain when you clock in at 9 and clock out at 5, with a commute between home and work and back again. Unless you work in an industry that “encourages” frequent overtime, you’re probably used to a comfortable balance between your work and private lives. But when all your work is done at home, it’s more difficult to mentally separate the two.
There are a few strategies you can employ to maintain a healthy mindset working at home. The first is to create a transition between work and home. Without a commute, your brain may not know when to start or stop working anymore. Create a ritual activity to help reset your brain at the start and end of your scheduled work hours. That could be taking a walk outside, playing a video game or anything else you normally don’t do, to take your mind off what you were doing before and focus on what you’re about to do.
Another important strategy for staying healthy at home is to take breaks. Just as it’s easy to slack off or get distracted when working at home, it’s also easy to not take breaks. No longer do you have the social trigger of your colleagues going to lunch or getting a drink at the water cooler. You may be tempted to work for 8 hours straight, but that isn’t healthy.
Get up and stretch for frequently, and remember to take a 10 minute break every 2 hours or so. If you know a team member likes to take a break at the same time as you, see if they want to chat about something other than work on your breaks. Human beings are machines, but like any machine, we’ll break down if overworked.
Scheduling Time for Everything
Start by setting a schedule. If you’re newly working from home, you may want to adhere as closely as possible to your old routines, which can be good for your mental health in keeping you grounded throughout these hard times. Get up when you normally do, follow your normal pre-work routine if it’s still appropriate and try to work your usual schedule. If you normally work 9-5, work 9-5. If you take a lunch break at noon, take a break at noon.
Alternatively, if you weren’t happy with your old routine, or if you have to adapt to having your kids home all day, change your schedule to one that works for you. If you have small kids that take a nap at 2, make sure you leave that 2 PM slot open for your most valuable activities. Plan around your new responsibilities as best you can, or whatever works best for you personally. If you’re naturally a night owl and live alone, rejoice! Just make sure you ask your project manager to make sure your hours work for the team.
3. Identify Roles and Responsibilities
Normally, when working on a project, it’s easy to bring up questions about your role and responsibility on it. You walk by a team member’s office, “you’re going to get that part to me by next week, right?” You can easily see what they’re working on at any given moment.
But when working remotely, it’s easy to feel like you’re working in isolation and make assumptions about what you and others are supposed to do. Then a milestone date shows up and you’re 2 weeks behind schedule because you and a coworker both thought you were waiting on the other to get started.
As such, it is important to be as clear as possible about what needs to be done by each person on the project. Project managers should check that each member of the project knows where to find the information they need and confirm that they understand their responsibilities. If you’re waiting on something from a teammate before you get started on your part of the project, don’t hesitate to send them an email asking for an update. It’s best to do this before the deadline if you’re uncertain, but if the deadline has come and you’re still waiting, check in with your project manager or the teammate using instant messaging or an email with “URGENT” in the subject line.
4. Set Expectations for the Project Team
One of the most difficult things when working remotely on a project with other people is setting expectations. Expectations can no longer be set or reinforced casually in the office. They have to be intentionally set out and made clear to the whole team.
This applies to team members and project managers alike. When transitioning to remote work, it is important that the team have a meeting to discuss expectations and that everyone feels safe to share their thoughts. Some members may need greater flexibility with the changing situation and some expectations may need to be adjusted.
Some expectations that should be reexamined are:
- How and when the team communicates
- Professionalism of video call environments
- Typical work hours and adjusted deadlines
Project managers should also check in with clients and customers to manage expectations that may have changed as a result of remote work.
5. Stay in Touch with Each Other
The most important thing is to stay in touch with each other. And I don’t mean like I’ve talked about above. I mean making sure to truly connect with each other on a personal, human level. Working from home can be lonely, especially when you can’t meet friends or hang out in coffee shops. It’s important, more than ever, to take that extra step to stay connected even if it’s not in person.
Make time before meetings to chat about what’s been happening. If the team is really bonding, project managers should let them talk for 1 or 2 minutes after the meeting is supposed to start. Send an email thread with silly pictures and memes. Share pictures of the kids or the pets or even the sky outside your house last night. Text team members you’re friends with at the end of the day just to see how they’re doing.
The pandemic won’t last forever, and that means working from home will be temporary for most of you. But it will last long enough that loneliness can set in. Don’t forget to take the time to combat it and remind yourself that there are other people waiting on the other side, who miss you just as much as you miss them.