Remote teams offer unique benefits. You can hire people from anywhere, saving money and reaching a bigger talent pool. You can save office costs. And you can often get more coverage by having employees in multiple time zones, making it easier to move fast and keep customers happy.
But remote working also has unique pitfalls. Without the serendipity of a shared office, it’s easier for remote team members to become isolated and miss out on the benefits of rubbing shoulders with teammates.
Many successful remote teams have generously shared how they overcome this problem. If you’re working in a remote team, try these three approaches to bring your employees together.
1. Make all communication public
For companies like Buffer and Stripe, making sure all employees have access to the information they need is critical. It’s why these teams have open email policies, keeping everyone in the loop on everything that’s happening throughout the company.
For a company as big as Stripe, with more than 400 email lists across the entire team, transparent email takes a lot of work to get right. One way the company handles this is to CC emails to archive lists. This way, a copy is always available for other team members to find when necessary, but those non-urgent emails aren’t cluttering up everyone’s inboxes.
Stripe’s CTO, Greg Brockman, says CC’ing an archive list should be the default action for team members:
The goal isn’t to share things that would otherwise be secret: it’s to unlock the wealth of information that would otherwise be accidentally locked up in a few people’s inboxes.
At Buffer, the team also relies on email lists to keep knowledge accessible without overwhelming everyone’s inboxes. With email lists for teams (e.g. “engineering”, “design”), areas of responsiblity (e.g. “retreats”, “culture”), and one for the entire team, Buffer’s employees rely on a few simple practices to know when and how to include these email lists:
These lists can either be sent to directly, cc’ed, or bcc’ed depending on the context. Here’s generally how we decide how to send to a list.
- email a specific team member and cc a list
- email an external person and bcc a list
- email to a list to notify a whole team
- you should strive to always cc or bcc a list
Buffer also has practices laid out for how to respond to each email you get, so every team member knows what’s expected of them:
- if it’s “to” you, you’re expected to reply
- if you’re specifically cc’d, you’re expected to read it
- if it’s your own team that’s cc’d, you should read that
Whether you aim to make all email communication public, or simply open up more of your communication channels to keep your team informed, planning recommended practices can make this strategy work more smoothly.
2. Make a rule for downtime
One of the unique issues of remote working is knowing who’s available, and when, and ensuring overlap between team members in different time zones. It can be easy to feel like you have to be available always when you’re working remotely, as you never know when a customer or teammate will need your help.
When Basecamp’s customer support team added phone support, they worried about employees being tied to their desks constantly. Knowing this wouldn’t be healthy, the team proactively created rules for taking time away from the phones.
If a team member needs a break to step outside, or wants some downtime to change location, the rest of the team covers for them. This expectation has been created ahead of time, so employees know they can keep the flexibility of their remote work setup without sacrificing customer happiness:
Phone support also inhibits some freedoms of remote work. While many of us work from our homes, there are times when we get stir crazy and want to venture off to a coffeeshop to work. We all know that it’s rude to take calls at a coffeeshop, so we cover for each other if someone wants to get out of the house just like we would if someone were sick or on vacation or having an off-day.
While it’s important to support your team in finding a balance between flexibility and their responsibilities, it’s essential to create these expectations ahead of time. Making expectations clear upfront can avoid frustration or confusion later on.
3. Embrace a regular non-work check-in
Remote team Wildbit is spread out all over the world. Recently, the team was missing the serendipity of having everyone together in one office. In particular, they were missing the typical Monday morning catchup of in-office workers, who bond over their weekends before getting down to work.
To recreate this camaraderie, the team started using Basecamp to send out a regular check-in every Monday. Each employee would be asked on their Monday morning how their weekend was, and everyone else was able to read the updates that trickled in as each time zone hit Monday morning.
According to Julie Parkes, who runs Office Operations and Team Happiness at Wildbit, this approach worked well because it didn’t interrupt work the way a regular Monday morning video call might have, but it did ensure everyone had a chance to bond over what they’d been up to on the weekend. “We wanted to respect the lines of business vs. social,” says Parkes, “and weren’t sure how this approach would pan out.”
But so far, it’s been a success:
It’s been an eye-opening look into each others families, hobbies, and personalities. Not only has the team been receptive to the conversation but are highly engaged including videos and pictures to enhance their stories. It’s been fascinating to see people share their experiences in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu competitions, motorcycle tours, drone navigation, race car driving, home improvement projects, pilot training, cycling events, and summer travel adventures.
Parkes says this approach has helped the team to connect in a way that was missing previously. “While we may be physically apart from one another,” she says, “we still value and appreciate the need to connect in a real way.”
We’re now able to congratulate, encourage and share life with one another in a more intimate way than a heart on an Instagram post or thumbs up on Facebook. I didn’t notice a gap in connectivity before (and maybe that is because I work from the office HQ) but now I can’t imagine going back. What started as an attempt to make the team more in tune with each other has really catapulted a bond that we have found irreplaceable.
What strategies help you bring your remote team together? Let us know your favorites in the comments.