3 Ways to Boost Collaboration While Remote

By Madison Taylor
June 20, 2021
Behind a man on a video call

The work-from-home movement has been growing for years, and it got a major boost forward during 2020. Significant companies employing millions of people have announced that they’ll allow their teams to work from home indefinitely, and WordPress famously went from zero to employing 1100 people in 77 cities, all without ever renting an office.

It seems likely that remote work flexibility will start to rank near the top of the list for potential job seekers, along with health insurance and vacation days. But running a company remotely brings with it significant challenges. Communication can be difficult if employees are in different time zones or keep different schedules, and collaborative tasks like brainstorming and debating are much more difficult to carry out from a distance.

Here’s how to keep your team running smoothly, even if you’re not all in the same building.

1. Task Management and Goals

Without the ability to tap someone on the shoulder and ask them to help you with the task at hand, it’s easy for people to end up working in isolation. To encourage people to work together from afar, you need to start at the ground level with the way roles and tasks are assigned.

Firstly, establish clear definitions and roles for everyone on the team. No more unwritten rules or sticky notes — if something needs to be done, it should be an official task in your task manager software. This includes meeting times, checking emails, logging hours, and everything else that people spend time on during the day.

A granular breakdown of every major project will help people plan their time better when the natural structure of the workday is blurred. More importantly, by planning and budgeting collaboration time on specific projects, you ensure that people have the time set aside to work with each other rather than trying to squeeze in a quick Zoom brainstorm between other tasks.

Video conferencing isn’t the only way to collaborate on a task. In addition to the face-to-face element, take advantage of tools like Google Docs or Dropbox Paper to share notes and work on projects in real time — it’s the closest thing you’ll get to brainstorming in front of a whiteboard.

2. Recurring Meetings

We’ve all joked about a meeting that could have been an email, but the problem of boring or unnecessary meetings is even more pronounced with a distributed workforce. Matt Mullenweg, the co-founder of WordPress, offers this advice for distributed teams to keep their meetings impactful:

  • Have a clear agenda: the meeting should have a specific set of information that needs to be relayed or a deliverable that will be finished by the end of it
  • Invite the right number of people: if it’s not important for someone to be involved in the meeting, they shouldn’t be there. Including people who will only feel left out or unhelpful is not a good way to get your team to work together.
  • Ensure no distractions: it’s not easy to hold people’s focus on a remote call, but Mullenweg recommends that everyone is on camera and no one is muted. By more closely simulating an in-person meeting, you’ll encourage people to listen to each other and meaningfully contribute.

In most cases, a meeting shouldn’t be an announcement. If you’re calling a meeting simply to update your team on new developments with no intention of hearing their responses or fielding questions, you can probably send that information as an email instead.

Instead, think of a meeting as a great opportunity for people to work together, discuss ideas, and communicate more effectively. As Mullenweg puts it, “your culture is not the ping-pong table” — it’s about fostering an environment of open collaboration and honest discussion.

3. Take Advantage of Communication Technology

Communication is key to collaboration. When working from home, it’s easy to feel like you’re in a silo, cut off from your employees, checking off tasks and moving on. To get people working together, passing ideas back and forth, and recognizing each other’s accomplishments, you need to make sure they’re talking,

There’s no excuse for poor communication among remote team members anymore — platforms like Google Meet, Zoom, Skype, Microsoft Teams, and Slack will allow you to communicate in real-time with audio and video included.

Channels are crucial. If you set up one big Slack chat or email chain that’s filled with information that most people don’t need, they’ll tune out and won’t notice when something relevant comes up. Create separate channels for different clients, projects, topics, and departments to keep everything distinct and relevant.

Don’t neglect voice and video chat. Text alone is efficient, making it preferable for common questions and check-ins, but strategy meetings and brainstorming require faces and voices. So much of what we say is in our facial expressions and tone of voice, so faceless communication is bound to result in certain things being lost in translation. In addition, putting a face to a voice reminds everyone that there’s a person at the other end of the call and encourages more sympathetic interactions.

Again, don’t overdo it. People tend to feel self-conscious and performative with a grid of webcam faces staring at them, so don’t ask for people to join video calls with no warning or for every little thing you need. Save it for meetings that people know about ahead of time or for more significant discussions.

Keep Experimenting

Many executives tend to overreact to remote work arrangements by micromanaging, but that will only serve to frustrate your team members. Handling a remote team isn’t easy, but with the right time tracking and organization tools, you can leave your employees mostly to their own devices and still run a well-oiled company.

There’s no single solution for a remote or distributed organization — try different tools, strategies, and policies until you find the one that works for you.