What are some best practices for designing efficient and effective remote workplaces and leading remote teams?
We live in a continuously connected world, where digital technology augments virtually every area of our lives. With 9.8 million — 7% of the civilian workforce — of the United States’ 140 million civilian workers having access to a "flexible workplace, or teleworking," remote work isn’t a novel concept, but has become a necessary one in the midst of our current pandemic.
Access to remote work is not inclusive. Fewer than 30 percent of American workers can telework, and the ability to work from home differs enormously by race and ethnicity. Service sector workers comprise only 1% of those who have access to remote work. Many others (restaurant servers, hair stylists, police officers, etc.) are completely excluded due to the nature of their jobs. The remote workforce remains primarily exclusive to private sector “knowledge workers” — those who do most of their work on computers and earn higher incomes. It is important to consider and support our health and service workers and those who are experiencing work disruptions as this COVID-19 pandemic unfolds.
For those in professional, creative, technical and similar fields with access to remote work tools, working from home has become the new normal. Given the exponential spread of COVID-19, coupled with urgent appeals for social distancing and self-quarantines to ‘flatten the curve,’ more and more organizations are needing to rapidly establish digital infrastructure and operations to keep afloat, and to keep their team members connected and engaged during this complicated time. They're also needing to adjust working schedules to accommodate homeschooling, caregiving, and other new challenges. These challenges will continue to unfold alongside this crisis.
Echo&Co began our shift to remote culture several years ago, around the time Google Hangouts launched (May 2013) and helped make video collaboration accessible and affordable. Improved network connectivity, cloud technologies, connected devices, and our team’s enthusiasm for adopting new technology enabled the transition, in large part.
Today, we operate as a hybrid in-person and remote team, with staff throughout the East Coast, Midwest, South, and in Canada. We have “hubs” in D.C. and Boston, and team members located in western Massachusetts, New Orleans, New York City, and Vancouver. Additionally, our many partners and clients have regional and international offices, or fully remote teams, so we've changed our approach to become very intentional about how we structure creative, collaborative work virtually.
As you shift to a remote workplace, read on for our ultimate guide to creating an effective work-from-home culture. We include strategies, tips, and best practices on how to do so in a way that inspires and supports your team.
It’s important to realize that a shift to working from home isn’t just about moving from a physical to virtual space. Working from home requires rethinking schedules, reimagining communication and collaboration workflows, encouraging a new kind of culture and camaraderie among team members, being inclusive of how people engage within their home environment, and creating respectful boundaries between work and home life.
Echo&Co partners Graziella Jackson and Peter Sax recommend seven things leaders can focus on to ensure a smooth and successful remote work transition.
1. Engage your team in co-designing their work-from-home experience
It is common for people to have mixed feelings about working from home. While some team members are excited to replace their commute with family or personal time, others see it as an opportunity to gain productive working time. While some people are excited about schedule flexibility, others wish for a more structured work setting and schedule. Some may relish the increased independent time, while others struggle without in-person social connection. And while some people are excited about the fluidity between work and home life, others prefer a more intentional separation.
It’s important to start an open, honest dialogue about what the shift to working from home means for each member of your team. As a leader, your goal is to create an effective work-from-home environment that is consistent across your team and inclusive of their needs. This is especially important now, as people have new demands on their time related to providing homeschooling and caregiving for children and family members.
To start, have structured conversations with each team member to ask them what they are excited about, what they are concerned about, and what they would need in order to feel supported. Inquire about their work style, how they like to engage with their colleagues, and what they need from a work-from-home environment in order to feel happy, supported, and successful.
After your initial conversations, ask the team to do four things:
- Develop a quick list of gaps, issues, and other things they think may need to be addressed in order to enable successful remote work.
- Inventory their home space, connectivity, and equipment, and come up with a list of things they may need in order to be more effective at working from home.
- Define the qualities of a remote work culture that they are excited to be part of and what they need from the team in order to succeed.
- Identify additional training, time management coaching, or other support they may want in order to feel confident in their work-from-home abilities.
If your team is small, you can conduct this “human-centered” discovery in one-on-one conversations. If your team is large, you can use survey tools, large group video conferences with breakout sessions, and small group video focus groups to build connections and gather insights.
Once everyone has contributed their ideas, you can summarize their insights and turn them into a detailed transition plan for the move to work-from-home. If your team is large, you may want to designate a transition team to help lead the roll-out. Plan to spend 60-90 days strengthening your remote work operations and culture with intentional transition conversations and activities. This will help your team establish common habits and routines that will benefit your long-term remote collaboration.
2. Help your team set up their space, connectivity, equipment, and routines
This is perhaps the most important advice we have to give: Don’t skip the important step of helping people physically and mentally prepare for the transition to working from home.
You never want to assume that your team members have everything they need to work from home successfully. As our minds and bodies shift between locations, we need thoughtful guidance about how to keep our whole selves healthy and active while working from home. This includes providing helpful resources to your team for incorporating healthy routines, movement, nutrition, mental wellness, and other beneficial practices into their day. Share these resources, and make it a topic of conversation in both informal and formal gatherings.
Start off with supporting your team members in creating an effective at-home setup, beginning with establishing a dedicated office space that has natural light, good temperature control and air quality, comfortable furniture, and strategies for minimizing distractions. Foster creative usage of 'backdrop' wall space, and encourage your team to experiment with different remote setups to see which works best for them.
Of course, the technical setup of a person’s workspace is equally important to get right. Once you have a thorough inventory of equipment and material needs from across the team, you’ll need to define what a consistent setup looks like, and support the team with outfitting their workstation.
We recommend outfitting teams with:
- Internet connectivity equipment (routers, cables, etc.).
- External monitors, keyboards, and back-up devices.
- Ergonomic office desks, chairs, and equipment.
- Basic office supplies.
You also will need to provide further support by adopting easy-to-use, collaborative digital workspaces and tools. Remember that adoption of new technology is hard, so make it fun and rewarding for your team. We recommend a suite of remote communication and collaboration tools to keep team members engaged, including:
- A video conferencing platform that is easy to learn and use (e.g.: Google Hangouts, Skype, or Zoom).
- An instant messaging tool (e.g.: Slack).
- Remote “whiteboarding” tools (e.g.: ExplainEverything, Miro).
- Document solution(s) (e.g.: Google Drive, Dropbox, Box).
- Product and project management tool(s) (e.g.: Basecamp, Trello, Smartsheet, Airtable).
Setting up these systems is the first step to creating a successful remote work culture. At Echo&Co, we’ve tested out most of these major platforms and are happy to share any tips and ideas that we have learned. You can reach out to us with questions on Twitter, Facebook, or via email.
3. Develop detailed communication, connectivity, and availability guidelines
One of the biggest mistakes we often see organizations and teams make in transitioning staff to working from home is under-documenting and under-communicating remote work policies, procedures, and expectations. Keep in mind that for many people, online interaction is not second nature. Balancing technologies, video conferences, instant messages, emails, and texts can feel confusing and overwhelming.
As you lead a transition to remote culture and work, you will need to document, share, and reinforce helpful guidelines for expected availability, workspace presentation, and how to use the suite of tools you’ve provided. This includes updating your employee handbook and documenting supporting policies and communication guidelines to reinforce positive, shared remote work practices. This is your best tool for creating a supportive remote culture for your team that is free of ambiguity, confusion, or frustration.
You can help your team members eliminate guesswork by documenting clear guidelines (think of these as “rules of engagement”) for environment, availability, communication, and collaboration across channels. This includes:
- Core hours you expect the team to be working and actively available online.
- A clear definition of what active availability means across team members.
- Requirements for the remote work environment and allowable working locations.
- Requirements for basic, consistent internet connectivity.
- Guidance for effective video meeting facilitation, participation, and etiquette.
- Clear procedures for calendar usage and scheduling, to help with time management.
- Guidelines for effective communication, task management, and document sharing channels.
Developing these guidelines sets individuals and teams up for success by eliminating ambiguity, outlining consistent and shared expectations, and creating an open environment for seeking clarification and support.
4. Document in real-time, with strong knowledge and process sharing supports
Along with defining and communicating remote work guidelines, you need to implement tools and workflows that support real-time document sharing and collaboration. This will help individuals and teams have the resources they need to be productive.
In a remote workplace, it is essential that your team has access to real-time collaboration and documentation tools with smart version control. Workflows that rely on passing documents back and forth via email, with multiple layers of track changes, create barriers to time and workflow management. If people have to “wait in line” for their turn to contribute, they’re not able to make the most of their time and productivity. If they have to worry about duplication or loss of work because of inadequate version control, their attention to detail will decrease and frustration will increase. If they have to go looking for information in threaded emails and documents, they’ll get lost in the weeds and lose creative momentum. In today’s digitally enabled world these should already be challenges of the past.
Digital collaboration tools were designed to enable more effective, streamlined collaboration across organizations. If your organization has been slow to transition to digital infrastructure, this move to remote work can help you pilot and reinforce the introduction of new tools and processes.
There are many platforms you can choose from:
- Google Drive: which allows multiple people to create, edit, and comment on shared documents simultaneously.
- Dropbox: which allows you to centrally manage files, comment via a shared web interface, and be notified of potential versioning conflicts.
- Basecamp: to centrally manage threaded discussions and keep track of agreed-upon outcomes using to-dos and other tools.
Using tools that enable collaborative updates and changes to the document, from multiple people, in real-time makes it much more efficient to integrate document collaboration workflows into real life.
You’ll likely use one or two platforms in combination for document collaboration, and want to spend time mapping out the specific requirements and use cases of your team before investing in a tool. Once you develop a comprehensive set of requirements, you can use those to evaluate your options, select your platforms, develop supporting workflows and governance rules, and begin onboarding, training, and supporting your team.
If you’re new to workflow development, it can feel like a daunting task. You need to spend time mapping the people, activities, results, and various completion states that a particular task or set of tasks require. Once you have that developed, you need to understand the:
- Order and sequence of those process elements
- Rules that determine when they are successfully accomplished
- Tools and resources required to support their completion.
It’s not enough to simply select a tool or set of tools and expect teams to organize themselves. Adoption of new tools and workflows requires careful planning, supportive documentation, clear onboarding and training, and ongoing support. Expect a minimum of 60-90 days for teams to feel comfortable and confident in understanding the new tools and workflow adoption, and create an environment that supports them getting there.
When defining complex workflows, and the tools embedded within them, you also need to be aware of common pitfalls like optimism bias, planning fallacies, and coordination neglect, and actively counteract them. The best way to do this is to engage your team in auditing, modeling, and co-designing new workflows that work for them, along with areas for improvement. Once you have that audit complete, you’ll want to structure collaborative working sessions to sketch out new potential models for working and the ways technology can enable them.
You won’t be able to develop new workflows without strong human-centered design and leadership. We recommend identifying a “task force” of team members who are strong researchers, problem solvers, process designers, and systems thinkers to help lead this effort. Pair them with strong workshop facilitators, so you can engage the team in envisioning new possibilities, piloting them to find the best potential solutions, and moving them into implementation.
People will adopt a new tool or process if it simplifies and improves their work — engaging them in co-designing what that looks like is the best way to ensure adoption.
5. Lead with highly engaging ‘face-to-face’ engagement
It’s important to keep in mind that shifting to a remote workplace means successfully navigating and managing a lot of change. Change is hard. It makes people feel uncertain about their work. It introduces new ambiguity and conflict. It disrupts familiar structures and silos. All of this is important to acknowledge and confront directly, with an empathetic, relationship-driven approach to managing change.
As your organization and team shifts to remote culture, one thing we strongly urge is replacing phone-only communication with video and minimizing exceptions to this rule.
Conference calls are bad for collaboration — they enable multitasking, can encourage fragmented focus and attention, and are riddled with audio delays and other technical issues. (They’re so bad, in fact, they inspired one of our favorite internet spoofs). If there are underlying interpersonal conflicts and issues, phone calls can have an exacerbating effect. Video provides many of the same physical cues you would notice during in-person interactions, and supports stronger interpersonal connections.
In addition to replacing phone with video communication, we also recommend replacing traditional meetings with “workshop” style gatherings that have clear agendas, structured activities, strong facilitation, better “brainstorming” methods, and a balance of receptive (“I’m listening”) and productive (“I’m contributing”) engagement. This will help to increase focus and attention, and decrease multitasking.
If you have the technical ability to set up video-based conferencing, we recommend doing it immediately and working closely with the staff through the first 30-60 days of “video-on” adoption, until they feel comfortable and familiar using the tool.
It takes time to establish familiarity and comfort with video collaboration. Leaders can help by encouraging good habit-forming practices and rewarding teams for embracing change. You’ll need to spend time encouraging team members who feel initially shy or hesitant about being on video to understand the purpose and value of it to both them and the team. The initial feeling of awkwardness will eventually wear off and engaging on video will become more natural.
If you’re trying to determine the right cadence of regular online interactions, we recommend:
- For your full staff or unit: at least one weekly or biweekly video gathering, using an adaptive agenda that focuses on learning, sharing, and fun.
- For individual project teams: one or two weekly video gatherings, using a structured agenda that focuses on status updates, action planning, and removing blockers, barriers, and risks.
- For functional teams (department, office, program, etc.): one weekly video gathering, using an adaptive agenda that focuses on team vision, values, performance, growth, and development.
- For cross-functional teams: one drop-in style weekly gathering, using an adaptive agenda focused on learning, sharing, creative expression, and fun.
- For individual check-ins: one weekly video gathering, using an adaptive agenda focused on sharing overall ideas, observations, and concerns, and reviewing forthcoming priorities and removing blockers.
As you try this schedule on for size, you’ll want to take notes, encourage the team’s feedback, and tailor it to meet your team’s specific needs. Keep in mind that there are both social and technical aspects of good video meeting participation, so you’ll want to support your team with training and how-to guides for techniques such as:
- Guidelines for when to mute and unmute your audio.
- How to share documents within specific applications, and not entire desktops.
- Etiquette around disabling notifications and instant messaging applications during meetings, or while document-sharing.
This will help to minimize distractions that come from audio disruptions, user errors, and minor technical issues. We love this advice on how to be good at video meetings from Erin Barnes, cofounder of the civic technology nonprofit ioby.
Moving to a video-based culture is both an art and a science. Your new practices need to recognize that change is difficult and counteract that with creative, rewarding virtual meeting practices that people are excited to adopt.
For further learning:
- Check out Anna’s article on best practices for leading a remote content strategy training, to see what an effective remote workshop can look like.
- Learn how to improve structured collaboration, in our presentation Staying Sharp: How to Implement Great Ideas from the 2019 Nonprofit Technology Conference (19NTC).
- Listen to our CEO Graziella Jackson speaking with Tony Martignetti of Nonprofit Radio about establishing a creative culture that encourages better collaboration and ideas (second half of podcast).
- Read Matt Stempeck’s take on next-generation remote collaboration on the Civic Hall website.
6. Encourage breaks, unplugging, and shut-down rituals
Remote workers often spend more time working beyond their normal work hours. While in the short term this seems like a beneficial thing, in the long term it can lead to burnout. Especially in times of heightened stress and anxiety — like during a pandemic — it’s important to actively encourage your team to set aside work and take care of their physical and mental health.
Leadership should provide strategies for:
- Time-management and timeboxing their tasks.
- Structuring working hours to make the most of working styles and limited productive time.
- Encouraging screen breaks to rest your eyes and brain, and reduce stress.
- Advocating for movement, meditation, good nutrition, and other forms of self-care.
One of the most supportive things you can do is encourage your team to set and follow "shutdown rituals" so they can close out their day and unplug. All team members should be respectful of others’ non-work time by avoiding emailing, calling, and texting after hours. Using tools like “schedule send” on emails can allow those who prefer to work before and after normal working hours to still be productive, while also being mindful and inclusive of those who want boundaries around their workday.
Once you have established clear availability and communication guidelines, encourage your team members to use their email (out of office notices), and calendaring tools to reinforce their schedules with others.
- Adding blocks for non-meeting productive time on calendars, striving for two to three hours per day.
- Encouraging users to set their status to “do not disturb” on instant messaging channels and turning off alerts and notifications.
- Using out-of-office responders for before and after work hours, to reaffirm working schedules.
This is another area where it is helpful to engage your team in defining their individual needs and co-designing shared expectations among them. By encouraging downtime and self-care, you will create a culture that respects people, their working styles and preferences, and their need for time away from work.
7. Develop and maintain a strong team culture
As Peter Drucker said, “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” The reason for this is that culture is the expression of an organization’s values through all of its practices — and it is as true of remote workplaces as it is of traditional working environments. As you shift to a remote workplace, you will need to make sure you’re considering those values and adapting them into new ways of engaging and working.
With remote workplaces, the entire team needs to work together to create a shared sense of belonging, significance, and purpose. This includes balancing interactions that focus on context and meaning (seeking to know) with interactions focused on driving outcomes forward (planning to act). Both types are important to apply when building intentional, structured interactions in remote cultures.
At Echo&Co, one of our approaches to building and maintaining a positive culture is to emphasize curiosity, courage, compassion, transparency, continuous learning, and vulnerability in everything we do (we love Brene Brown’s teachings on this work). We lead and encourage team celebrations, fun, idea-sharing, and ‘kudos’ in virtual gatherings, as well as through other virtual communication channels like Slack and Gmail. We also work through challenges, conflict, and difficulty with honesty, humility, and respect. It is important to remember that culture-building is an adaptive, fluid process that requires continuous work.
With the right approaches, remote work can be effective and rewarding for everyone. Our recommendation is to use the above ideas to try, test, refine, and repeat. Involve your team in defining the best remote approaches, be open to trial and error, and you'll improve with time and practice.
If you have questions or would like to talk further about any of the above concepts — get in touch. We love this work and would be happy to schedule a more in-depth conversation.