The last few months have seen knowledge workers around the world participating in an involuntary work from home experiment. Thrust into remote work during a global pandemic, people scrambled to figure out what this “new normal” might look like. Now that we’re a few months in, it’s clear there is nothing really “normal" about it.
As we look towards a new world where more teams embrace remote work and fancy office spaces may become a relic of a bygone time, I’m optimistic that more and more teams will experience the overwhelming positives of remote work.
Trust me, if you have childcare, a dedicated area in your home to work, and once the feeling of global chaos wanes, it can be quite satisfying to embrace the benefits of teleworking. It’s no wonder that in non-pandemic times, remote teams expressed higher levels of satisfaction as well as higher levels of productivity.
In order to have an engaged and productive remote workforce, teams need a combination of the right practices and rituals, as well as trust, engagement and transparency within the organization at all levels to be successful.
The majority of the Trello team has worked remotely for nearly a decade so here are share some best practices for building a remote team with a strong culture, exceptional productivity, positive morale, and an eye on long-term sustainability.
Teamwork + Rituals = Psychological Safety
Study after study shows that the best performing teams are ones where individuals feel a sense of belonging and psychological safety. A famous study from Google confirmed that the single measure of psychological safety predicted the success of teams regardless of which department they belonged to. This may make a newly remote manager scratch their heads and think, “How do you build trust when everyone’s not in the same space?”
The answer is to think about creating digital analogues to physical paradigms.
Let’s break that down. For example, consider the good ol’ in-office water cooler. This is a place where people can just hang out and be people: They can talk about their weekend plans, favorite TV shows, and whatever else is on their minds. An easy way to recreate this vibe is to consider which tool is the place where instantaneous talk happens for work. For us at Trello, this is Slack. We make sure to create water cooler channels that folks can join to discuss non-work related topics.
Here are some of my favorites:
- Private team chat: My team has always had a private Slack channel that is encouraged to be an open and safe space to discuss whatever is on anyone’s mind. It’s not necessary to keep up with the channel, but this is where we talk about TV shows, share weekend plans, and discuss the latest memes.
- Hobby related channels: From music to cooking to a Peloton channel, we have just about every hobby or interest channel in our Slack instance. This encourages those random types of conversations and folks realizing they have similar interests, especially for people who don’t work together frequently.
- Digital hangouts: By now, everyone’s aware that just about any life event can happen in Zoom. But long before Zoom weddings were a thing, the Trello team was meeting for weekly happy hours, brunches, game nights, and even craft workshops. The trick is to plan a variety of bonding activities that interest your team and build camaraderie—while also doing them at a cadence that makes sense. One newly remote manager I was chatting with planned a happy hour for her team every single day. Quickly, she realized that was not a sustainable cadence for anybody.
- Celebrate wins: Another ritual I absolutely love from my team is sharing mistakes and/or failures we’ve had with one another, as well as acknowledging when team members go above and beyond. We do this at the end of our biweekly meetings by sharing “Woes and Bravos.”
This little ritual establishes a culture of vulnerability where it’s ok to make mistakes. As a manager, I regularly share whatever mistakes I’ve made with the team to normalize the humanity of failure. We end the meeting with sharing “bravos” for each other to acknowledge our successes and teamwork.
Once you figure out the right set of rituals for your team, you’ll find that team culture builds on itself when people get to know each other as humans. As your team grows and changes, you have to be flexible and try new things when old rituals become boring or simply don’t work anymore.
Show Off Your Toolbox
As someone who does marketing for a software company, I can tell you one of the hardest things about software adoption across a team is getting everyone on a team to (happily) use a tool. Then once people are using a tool, everyone tends to use it slightly differently.
That is, unless the team defines both the set of tools they are using as well as how everyone across the team is using those tools.
For example, my team gets together quarterly and documents all of the tools we are using and how we use them. For synchronous conversation, we use Slack. Since we are also a group of creatives who need to step away for deep work from time to time, we also have defined expectations around response times depending on the time of day.
No matter what the conversation is, we try to default to taking public channels vs direct messages so information is not lost or contained in silos. This is the equivalent of finding out information via a public memo compared to scheduling a meeting.
For asynchronous communication and project-related work, we use Trello and Confluence. These tools and the ease to document ideas, updates, and progress make project information much easier to find and track, especially for managers who want to know the status of projects without micromanaging (which is very easy to do if you’re not set up correctly in a remote work environment).
Another tool-related rule we live by is “escalate the medium, not the message.” Since digital communication lacks the nuance of body language and verbal cues, things can get taken out of context really quickly. To prevent this, team members are encouraged to jump into a quick Zoom call to talk things out person to person, instead of spending a bunch of time going back and forth in chat when things can get heated or frantic.
Build Trust And Default To Transparency With Metrics, Meetings, And More
When I think about building trust, I think about the qualities of integrity, consistency over time, and reliability.
One of the questions I get asked most often is, “How do you know people are actually working when they’re not in an office?” Hopefully, this forced remote working experiment helps more people understand that this concern can be mitigated by having crystal clear expectations for work plus a results oriented culture.
Many remote-first companies start by being more metrics driven and transparent in order to hold everyone accountable to achieving individual and company goals. Employees are accustomed to performance being tied to some sort of performance metric—whether that’s a number of support tickets answered, sales generated, or new hires recruited.
This way, managers don’t need to default to subjective qualities, such as communication styles or collaboration techniques, to assess employee performance. With remote work, this is even more applicable since you can’t tap someone on the shoulder to ask for an update. The assessments and communication around these activities need to be intentional in order to be effective.
For managers, once you’ve established a set of tools that fulfill the working needs of the team, it’s time to track metrics and the initiatives that drive these goals by going through documented information and talking to teammates.
For my team, I have regular one-on-one meetings with direct reports and use a one-on-one Trello board to track project and career progress for every person. Direct reports can also bring up any issue any time through the Trello board so they don’t forget to discuss it (or it’s not urgent enough to be discussed right away).
We report on project updates in a weekly cadence on a Trello board that uses the Slack Power-Up to directly pipe updates into a Slack channel every Friday afternoon—I can easily peruse updates on projects and ask follow-up questions. Trello has a monthly town hall meeting to go over organization wide updates and important information, and Atlassian has a weekly global town hall to go over company wide information.
At Trello, we’ve been doing this remotely over Zoom for years, and Atlassian recently switched to Zoom for town hall meetings as a result of the global pandemic.
When I think about building trust, I think about the qualities of integrity, consistency over time, and reliability. Repeated over and over and institutionalized through a set of tools and rituals, trust through remote work is not only achievable but is preferable to operating through human biases that commonly sneak into office environments.
Sharing Is Caring (And Crucial)
In an office, there is usually a person or a set of people responsible for making sure the lights stay on, the snacks are replenished, and a broken desk gets replaced. Depending on the size of the company, this could be the management team or it could be a workplace experience team. However, individual teams or employees tend to plan special occasions like baby showers or birthday celebrations for their fellow teammates.
The digital equivalent of this is having regularly scheduled programming like town halls meetings or updates from management, while teams are also able to own their team culture. For example, we have company-wide Slack channels for hobbies, but teams may also have their own Slack channels to build camaraderie and culture on their own. My team has a tradition of sending each other personalized birthday gifts planned by everyone. We budget for this at the beginning of the year in the same way you’d budget some company money for office parties.
The key is that everyone on the team feels ownership for building a remote culture. Someone may be in charge of planning a regular happy hour, and someone else may be in charge of planning a fun activity at an offsite (digital or in person). The goal is that one person isn’t always leading the charge to bring everyone together outside of work projects and tasks.
Strengthen Your Team To Excel In A Virtual World
This mega WFH experiment won’t be over for some time, and for many, it is likely a new reality of our work life. Like any transition, not seeing your team or engaging in your daily rituals can be disorienting. A return to some semblance of safe childcare would also be ideal! However, with the right attitude, tools, and leadership in place, creating a virtual workspace is not only possible, it’s enjoyable.
And it’s never too late to put these changes into place. Whether it’s going to one more draining remote meeting or just missing out on laughing with your office BFF in person, creating a culture of remote-friendly work starts with some practical steps an organization of any size can handle.
Grab your headphones and a snack, that next team meeting is ready to hear how to revamp and remodel their remote teamwork style.
Good or bad, we'd love to hear your thoughts. Find us on Twitter (@trello)