Remote working has become the norm in the modern world of work, with digital technology enabling members of teams in different locations and different time zones to work together on the same project. With that comes the modern-day challenge of keeping remote team members motivated and engaged, especially when in all likelihood they have never met in person.
While technology facilitates the practical elements of remote communication and collaboration, how do organizations maintain company values and foster a real sense of cohesiveness and team spirit among such geographical disparity?
“Virtual team leaders need to be able to communicate a clear vision, create a shared sense of purpose, create safe space, and build trusted relationships with the team,” says executive coach Juliet Atkinson, founder of The Coaching Connection. “They must also be able to use technology and social media effectively, and role modeling how to do that will help the team do the same. And as in all teams, it is important for team members to feel recognized, valued, and appreciated.”
When it comes to collaborating on a project from multiple global locations, the choice of digital communication tools and platforms is vast, but which will provide that sense of human interaction that will improve the chances of a successful project outcome?
Some organizations have found chat and instant messaging apps to be time zone friendlier than video conference calls—people don’t need to connect in real time to communicate effectively, and some of these workplace apps enhance rapport between distant colleagues and even inject a sense of fun into the collaborative process.
Founded in 2015, the Hoxby Collective comprises a group of 450 people working remotely across 29 countries and specializing in areas like marketing and design. The widely dispersed community uses Slack to brainstorm, discuss interests, strengthen company values, and support other team members, while projects are delivered via Google Suite.
“We set rules around our use of technology to ensure visibility over communications and a common language for all of the ‘Hoxbies,’” says CEO and cofounder Alex Hirst. “So for example, we never email each other, and we always use G Meet for video calls. This creates the foundation created for effective communication.”
Hirst and his cofounder Lizzie Penny produce a weekly two-minute video, “Workstyle Freestyle,” which keeps everyone up to date with the latest news, thinking, and ideas, and also provides a forum for answering any questions. “It’s lighthearted, transparent, and authentic, all of which are key to building engagement within a remote workforce,” says Hirst. “By recording key meetings on Zoom, we can share conversations with those in other time zones unable to attend while respecting their preferred pattern of work.”
Working remotely on a project requires team members to be absolutely clear on what’s expected and who is responsible for what. At Onyx, a small business communications consultancy based mainly in the South East of England, but with new team members recently joining from the United States and Germany, the key to achieving this lies in careful recruiting.
“We obviously need people who are self-starters, but they also need to be very supportive by nature, and not too competitive,” says managing director Anne Cantelo. “We set objectives for everyone, including myself, and clear lines of responsibility. This ensures clear delegation and clarity over each person’s role and the dependence and interdependence of the team, which in itself we all find motivating.”
However, teams collaborating remotely on a project can encounter a mutual knowledge challenge, when information fails to be distributed across the team in a mutually efficient way. Some firms use project management software to make information more accessible and address any knowledge gaps.
“Much of our work demands careful long term planning,” says Cantelo. “At a practical level, we have to ensure that all our online files are consistent, and we maintain a living online project report on each client that anyone can look at and, if necessary, take over when someone isn’t available.”
Recognition and reward systems are vital to team motivation regardless of where members are based and can range from team competitions with enticing prizes to monthly email recognizing those who’ve achieved their targets.
Global staffing company Worldwide101 has two headquarters, one in the UK and one in the US, and a team comprising 150 members, based in Europe, Canada, and the US, with the largest majority in the latter. Finding innovative ways to keep everyone engaged is a top priority.
Their strategy includes the publication of two monthly newsletters: TheLoop, for company announcements, celebrations, and welcoming new team members; and Yours Virtually, which turns the spotlight on a different member of the team each month, finding out about their life away from work, families, and what they do for fun, etc.
“We also send them Pugsy, our stuffed Mascot, who they show about their hometown, take photos with Pugsy of famous landmarks, etc.,” says marketing manager Audrey Fairbrother, “and the rest of the team guesses their location, with correct guesses entered into a prize draw. It’s a little physical manifestation of our connectedness.”
The company also runs prize draws to motivate and celebrate team members who have retained their clients on a yearly basis.
Given the right strategy and tech tools, remote team members can be just as motivated and engaged as their centrally based peers. However, the value of face-to-face interaction shouldn’t be underestimated, and according to Juliet Atkinson, teams should ideally meet in person at least once a year.
“In-person meetings are motivating as the team will often perceive this as an ‘investment’ in them,” she says, “and it’s a chance for the team to spend quality time together and build relationships. Meeting people face to face can also change our perception of them.”
The team of four at UK-based bookkeeping consultancy But the Books is currently transitioning to remote working, but founder Zoe Whitman is determined to maintain face-to-face interaction by organizing team days.
“They are an opportunity to talk about operational issues, our business strategy for the coming months, and our values,” she says. “As well as covering business objectives, a team day is a great way for everyone to get to know each other in a social capacity, which is good for morale.
“I’ve worked for many large organizations that have had varying levels of success in using technology to keep remote teams connected, but getting together every once in a while really strengthens those personal relationships that are so important to being a well-connected team.”