Teamwork Online: The ultimate guide to building a high performance remote team

 In Teamwork online

Teamwork online is the ultimate goal for many businesses. Employees are happier, productivity can skyrocket, you can recruit from a global talent pool, and costs are minimized. When a great team is working well, it can achieve truly amazing things. But when things go wrong with teamwork online, things can get incredibly frustrating!


Making Teamwork Online a Goal

Building a high performance team that is purely remote is a great goal and there are lots of reasons to go after it – improved productivity, cost savings, access to talent, increased employee satisfaction to name just a few. On the other hand, distributed teams also face some big challenges. The biggest obstacle to effective remote teams is teamwork online.

You know that you can work remotely effectively, right? Well everyone else ‘knows’ that they can work well remotely too! The question is can you effectively work as a team online. Without the face-to-face interactions and structure that an office brings, how do you orchestrate effective teamwork online?

When I sold my last business, I decided that the next business I built would be purely online. Yes, that’s right – a fully remote team, right from the start. Don’t get me wrong, there were some things about having an office to go to that I loved, and I had a great team and enjoyed seeing them each day, but there were also too many downsides. Time spent (by me and all the team) commuting to and from the office is just dead time. No-one enjoys it and it just adds to the stress of life (not to mention the negative environmental impact). It also restricted my life choices. For instance, we wanted to move our family to another country to experience a new type of life, but that was impossible with an office full of people. (We’ve since moved to France and are basing ourselves here while working on various projects remotely.)

Teamwork online differences and challenges

So what are the things to consider with teamwork online? How can you setup a remote team for success? Is it even possible to achieve high performance teamwork online?

Teamwork online has never been more important with more and more people now working remotely. Remote work might be just a portion of the office choosing to work from home a day a week, collaborating with contractors on the other side of the country, or employing a distributed team that is literally scattered all over the globe. If you thought teamwork was tricky before, it just got harder!

Think of teamwork online as a whole new level in the teamwork game. Here’s where we introduce the new challenges! But while the level of difficulty increased, there are of course, plenty of ways to deal with those new challenges.

Prepare for the challenges of teamwork online

Although there are plenty of benefits, working online does present some problems. These stem from people not being physically together in an office and basically all come down to communication and collaboration. For this reason, special attention needs to be given to the ways that we set ourselves up to communicate and collaborate with our online teams. We recently wrote about the common problems with teamwork online, with the main ones being;

  • No common vision
  • Lack of visibility
  • Team members not feeling valued
  • Frustrations with Communication
  • Not seeing end-results

Clearly, there are preventative steps that can be put in place to prevent or at least minimize all of these teamwork problems.

Online teamwork requires more structured management

When we think of online teams, it’s often the flexibility that is one of the main attractions. Yes, it’s nice to be able to work from our homes or other locations, choose our own hours, and employ people from around the world, but this flexibility mindset also gets us into trouble.

When managing remote teams, there’s a tendency for managers to provide less structure than they would for a locally based team. Less meetings, less formally communicated expectations, and less planned team building activities. And this is for our team members that are separated from one another, lacking the visual cues of body language and facial expressions, and are often have more cultural differences! Clearly, this approach makes no sense at all.

We recently outlined the keys to managing a high performance team as;

  • Having a clear vision for the team
  • Setting goals & KPI’s
  • Having transparent actions (or a system for “showing your work”)
  • Holding regular 1:1 meetings and team meetings
  • Taking steps to create a motivating team culture

These team management fundamentals hold true for any team but are especially important for teamwork online.

In addition, remote teams also benefit greatly from having a formal Team Agreement. This can include things like the hours you expect people to work, the expectations of response times, guidelines as to what to communicate by which channels, etc. It should be a working document that is updated as new practises evolve in your team.

Great teamwork online requires great technology

If your team members are working remotely, you need to arm them with the best technology setup possible. You’re saving money on rent, utilities and many other things – so some of these savings should fund the IT systems required. Trying to work effectively with slow internet, poor headphones, or a flaky laptop is no fun at all and zaps morale very quickly.

In addition to the hardware and infrastructure that needs to be in place for effective remote teamwork, there are also a suite of apps and tools needed for teamwork online. In general, these team collaboration tools can be classified as follows;

  • Chat tool (eg Slack, Yammer, etc) – although you don’t want to encourage chatting online all day!
  • File repository (eg Dropbox, Google Drive, etc)
  • Video / audio meeting tool (eg Skype, Zoom, etc)

Then, depending on what types of functions your business is performing you might need a;

  • Project management system (like Asana or Basecamp), OR a
  • Simple shared task tool (eg Trello, Pivotal, or Jira), OR a
  • Team productivity system for working-out-loud (like Actioned)

There are pros and cons associated with each tool but the best ones are the ones you and your team actually use.

teamwork online - common problems and solutions

5 Common Problems of Teamwork Online (with Solutions!)

1) No Common Vision

A compelling, common vision is one of the most important elements to a high performing team. This is difficult enough in a typical office environment, but when people are not physically located together, it’s even more challenging. In an office, you can hold brainstorming meetings to define your shared vision, refer to your vision statement on the wall in conversation, comment on your progress towards your vision when you see your dashboard results, reference it when you walk to the coffee shop together, and there are plenty of opportunities to embed and remind each other of your vision.

With teamwork online, you have none of that.

You might think the team’s vision is clear, but when was the last time your remote team members mentioned it? Is the vision something that they find motivating? Do they know how their work contributes to the team vision? Are they even aware of what the team vision is?

The Solution: Make a point to reference your team vision during each team meeting. (Not having team meetings? Sorry, but you do need some of these too!) You can do this by pointing out how a piece of work helps move you closer to your team vision, or how an individual’s contribution impacts the team vision.

You can also have an infrequent, but regular meeting where you proactively discuss the team vision. If you don’t have a team vision, get everyone’s input on what they think the purpose of the team should be and really listen to everyone’s ideas. At the same time, encourage people to think big and find a vision that is inspirational.

2) Lack of Visibility

Knowing what everyone is doing is challenging enough inside a shared office, but with people spread out all over the place, it can be really hard. You don’t want to be micromanaging your team by constantly asking what everyone is doing. But at the same time, you need to know!

Time-tracking and screen recording software are certainly options, but these are incredibly intrusive. Most people hate working under these arrangements as they scream ‘lack of trust’. They also put the focus on the team members’ inputs rather than their outputs. Isn’t it more important to achieve certain results without worrying about how many hours someone spends at their computer?

The Solution: You need a transparent system that gets the team focussed on results – but on a micro level. The new Actioned Team Productivity App provides a system of daily updates that encourages individual productivity. It simply asks each team member to note down the specific actions they’re planning to work on that day. This information is then made transparent across the team so everyone has a good sense of what everyone else is doing.

The daily actions should be small, specific and focussed on outcomes. For example, “write first draft of blog article”, “understand root cause of login issue”, “decide which payments gateway to use”, “meet with John to determine next priorities”, etc. These are all good examples of specific actions.

On the other hand, “new website”, “branding”, or “develop billing system” are projects that are way too big and need to be broken down into specific actions that can be done in an hour or less.

3) Team Members Not Feeling Valued

Team members can easily feel disconnected when they are spread out. Differences in time zones, cultures and roles can further heighten these feelings. Remote teams miss the casual chit-chat over the water cooler and this can have a huge impact.

The Solution: There are 9 best practises for managing remote workers and one of them is actually to recreate the water-cooler. The basic premise is for team members to get to know each other better. (After all, when people know each other, they recognize the similarities and common ground, which leads to increased respect, and a greater desire not let their colleagues down.)

Recreating the water-cooler might be something as simple as starting each meeting with some conversation about the weekend. Or, you could introduce a tradition of having a bizarre weekly question which prompts more of an open discussion (eg “what are you having for dinner tonight and why?” or “what’s one thing on your bucket list?”). There are even some businesses that start a chat channel for something non-work related (eg “what are you watching on Netflix at the moment?”).

Although it might seem like a waste of time, these discussions are incredibly useful. They help your remote team members know each other (and you) much better than they otherwise would if discussions are strictly limited to work. Chit chat like this happens naturally in an office, and although you might have to force it a little bit at first, you’ll soon find that people will get the hang of it when working remotely as well. Teamwork online improves dramatically with just a few interactions like these.

Having transparency about what each team member is actually doing also helps for individuals to feel valued. Suddenly that developer knows the kinds of things marketing is working through and vice versa.

4) Frustrations with Communication

Imagine your team members, sitting at their desk and ready to work… but then they’re smattered with a barrage of online chatting all day. For many teams, there’s barely a 10 minute window of uninterrupted time. And yet, studies show that it takes us 10-20 minutes to get back into the flow of what we were doing after an interruption. Not exactly conducive to productivity! Yet this is how we expect our online teams to work.

Of course, the opposite is not good either. Imagine sitting in silence, never hearing from your team or knowing what they’re up to. Either of these approaches is incredibly frustrating.

There are so many fantastic remote management tools available, but knowing exactly how to use them is the real challenge.

The Solution: Finding the right balance of communication is a key to productivity for teamwork online. Daily updates are a great start, but the team needs to decide how other communication channels should be used. The best solution is to get the team to collectively agree on appropriate communication channels. This should then be documented in a Team Agreement.

In your team agreement, you should outline the situations that call for video and audio calls, the “core hours” individuals agree to work so that there is enough overlap time, whether team members should check-in to say “hi” when they start work, the frequency and timing of 1:1 meetings, etc.

Although most people don’t like meetings, having the right mix of meetings in place greatly reduces the need for the constant pinging questions back and forth. If a discussion is required about something, the upcoming meeting is the ideal forum. This way it doesn’t interrupt the flow of your colleagues’ work.

Likewise, asynchronous communication like email is still a hugely valuable tool. If something needs to be reviewed, it’s usually best to send via email so that the recipient can review at a time that suits them – rather than interrupting their current work. Of course, there are also plenty of times when online chat works well and increases productivity, but in general it can easily be overused.

5) Not Seeing End-Results

If you’re constantly working and not seeing any results for your efforts, it can be pretty demoralizing. It’s like being on a treadmill with work that keeps coming at you, and no end in sight! Being part of a team is all about playing your role, but we’re all humans too and we perform much better when we understand the impact our work has.

In an office environment, this is still important but it’s easier to get a sense of our contribution. For instance, we hear the sale teams celebrating good results, see the CEO’s reaction to the business’ progress, and perhaps even get exposure to direct feedback from customers.

With remote teams, it’s challenging to provide this feedback loop. And morale and productivity can suffer as a result.

The Solution: Online teamwork works so much better when there are milestones and celebrations in place. These don’t have to be huge, but they do need to exist.

The Agile methodology of working in 2 week “sprints” is popular amongst development teams, partly because it gives this focus to the work through the use of deadlines. Although this can add extra pressure to teams, it also increases work satisfaction and feelings of accomplishment. No longer does the work just keep piling on. Instead, the team decides on the specific tasks for the sprint and focuses on those until they’re accomplished. This methodology can work for many other types of teams as well. The simple version is to start setting short-term goals and outcomes for the team. A kanban approach is slightly different but can also be extremely effective.

Another part of the solution is to share external feedback with the team. For instance, sharing customer feedback or client results can be incredibly motivating as it shows the team the real results of their work.

Celebrating successes is a catch-cry often used, but in the day-to-day of business, it can sometimes be hard to see the successes. Instead of trying to find huge ‘wins’, find the micro wins that you can celebrate.

Positive feedback is still the most underutilized management tool available, so find some opportunities to use it!

how to improve teamwork online

It’s not that hard to achieve amazing teamwork online

All management has challenges but great remote teams are ultimately very achievable once a few basic considerations are put in place. For many organizations (and individuals), distributed teamwork requires a big shift in thinking, but once you find a rhythm to your team workflows and communications, you’ll see that you can build a motivated, high performing team online.

It’s clear that teamwork online is challenging, but once the difficulties are understood, it’s fairly easy to address these issues. With the right systems and disciplines in place, online teams can be just as high functioning as regular teams. The benefits of working online together can be huge, so make the effort to ensure that your team has the right processes in place for success.

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