Six Tactics To Improve Collaboration For Remote Teams
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Remote work has a ton of perks- no lengthy commutes, the ability to work in your PJs, and fewer interruptions are a few of the major ones that come to mind. But anyone who's worked remotely knows that working from home comes with its own downsides, especially when you're part of a team. As a hybrid team, we at Tara AI understand that adapting to digital work can be a struggle, especially if you’re part of a team working in a fast-paced, highly collaborative environment. So, how can teams thrive and remain high-performing in this remote era? Here is our quick take on some of the key challenges with remote work and six strategies on how to foster team collaboration- while preserving everyone’s sanity during social isolation.
PART ONE: THE PROBLEM
The challenges with remote collaboration
At Tara, half our team is globally distributed, with software engineers and growth marketers working from different regions of the world, alongside our team in San Jose, California. Here are some of the biggest challenges we face while navigating in an environment of remote collaboration:
1/ NO CLEAR BOUNDARIES
When your home is your office, it can become difficult to separate the two. Walking out of the office building or driving home can trigger your brain to check out from work mode and switch over to downtime. Unfortunately, moving from the desk to the couch doesn’t have the same effect.
Without clear boundaries and routines during the workday, you can end up responding to emails at all hours, and feel like you’re working around the clock. This will make you less productive and eventually lead to burnout.
Another downfall of blending home and work is that it is harder to focus on working during prime hours. Sure, some people achieve increased focus and productivity when working remotely, but this isn't true for everyone.
An obstacle our team members often face while working remotely is a lack of focus, especially for those working from home with small children. But even someone with a dog at home wanting attention, or a spouse sharing the same working space, will need to overcome new distractions they wouldn’t face in the office environment.
2/ ASYNCHRONOUS COMMUNICATION
When your whole team is within throwing distance, it’s easy to take instant communication for granted. Want to know the status of something? Just yell across the room to “Andrew,” and ask for an update. But, what happens when “Andrew” is not only miles away but also in another time zone?
When everyone is geographically spread out, effective collaboration becomes significantly more difficult. Working remotely requires your whole team to change their expectations around how quickly discussions can happen, and how fast you should expect responses.
Instead of being able to pop over to someone’s desk for a quick chat, you may have to send an email or message, and wait hours before their day starts and they come online.
This transition from instant to asynchronous communication (where you don’t expect an immediate response) is a huge hurdle for a lot of teams going remote for the first time.
3/ DECISION-MAKING STRUGGLES
At Tara, we believe in making key decisions together as a team. Being able to come together and hash out the pros and cons of different options and brainstorm new and innovative solutions helps us deliver the best possible outcomes.
But when you can’t physically come together, brainstorming and debating ideas becomes a lot harder. Our team often relies on video conferencing tools like Zoom to stay connected, but these tools can make piping up with ideas challenging.
Technical issues arise, and people can’t hear others; it’s easy to get drowned out by chatting and background noise, and there are more distractions to take people off-topic. Yet, shutting down microphones and asking people to request to speak kills the momentum and spontaneity that promotes innovative thinking.
Plus, arranging a time where everyone is available for a call can be a huge hurdle all on its own, especially when you’re dealing with multiple time zones.
4/ COLLABORATION HURDLES
Nailing down decisions isn’t the only time a remote team has to come together. Collaboration is a huge part of any project. Sure, there are some tasks that one person can take on and complete in isolation. But what happens when you need people to work together on specific features that require more collaboration?
When you’re working on a project together, but your colleague isn’t just down the hall, it’s harder to coordinate activities, share information, and make sure you’re both on the same page. The last thing you want is to discover you both tackled the same task and left something else undone because you each assumed the other was doing it.
With a team consisting of global developers, our team understands the challenges of keeping remote communications fluid when your colleagues aren’t a couple of desks away. No in-person interaction means having to reach out via email or other online means of communication- even multiple times until they finally reply. Waiting for replies can lead to significant delays in work progress, frustration, and decreased team efficiency.
5/ CULTURE BREAKDOWNS
If you’ve ever worked in an office with bad workplace culture, you know how critical culture is for happy, efficient teams. Creating a positive culture of trust and camaraderie isn’t easy- it takes a lot of effort to promote and maintain even in an office environment.
When you add in the fact that your team is physically isolated from each other, the struggle to maintain a strong culture becomes 10x greater. People can easily feel forgotten, overlooked, or ignored, which can cause them to mentally check-out or step-back from the team and their work.
Without the casual watercooler chats, going out for lunch together, or sharing after-hours drinks, it’s harder for your team to bond and build the trust they need to work together well. The introverts on your team can really struggle with having to reach out to others, especially if they get too used to working from home and not socializing on a regular basis.
PART TWO: THE SOLUTION
HOW TO FOSTER EFFECTIVE COLLABORATION WHEN REMOTE WORKING
Despite the significant challenges that remote development teams can face, there are fundamental practices you can implement to overcome them and help your team thrive in a remote workplace environment. Below are six tactics that we use here at Tara that can help your remote teams collaborate more effectively and efficiently than ever before:
1/ SET SOLID GOALS, AND ASSIGN TASKS EFFECTIVELY
At Tara, we realize that setting clear, detailed goals can help remove any uncertainty around what is expected of your team members. It also improves remote communications, maintains productivity, and makes it easier to track progress. There are two areas you should focus on when goal setting and assigning tasks:
Monthly milestones We strongly believe in over-communicating. Your team should always know what their overarching goals for the month are. While it's easy to get wrapped up in the day-to-day work, everyone on the project needs to focus on the set outcomes for the month, and how their daily work helps the team achieve those outcomes. Defining and continually communicating the big-picture goals are key.
Weekly or bi-weekly sprints At Tara, after we set our monthly milestones, we break tasks down into weekly sprints, on our own platform (meta!). With our dashboard, we can clearly define what tasks and deliverables are expected each week, and each team member has their priorities set up daily, due to ongoing tasks in a weekly sprint cycle. Using a tool like Tara can help you groom your backlog, prioritize tasks, and plan upcoming sprints. Planning 1–2 sprints ahead enables you to optimize your resources and efficiently assign tasks while still remaining agile. Teams can decide to set sprints to weekly or bi-weekly depending on their own cadences.
In remote environments, sprints are now effectively used by marketing, sales, and content teams to drive execution and strategy, while prioritizing what needs to be done. Sprints aren’t just for engineering and product development.
2/ SET UP RECURRING MEETINGS
It’s always challenging to find meeting times that work for everyone. To help remove this obstacle, find a time early on that works for as many people as possible and set it to be recurring. When people know a meeting is coming in advance, it’s much easier for them to schedule their work and lives around it. Here are three critical meetings that should be recurring in everyones’ calendars:
Daily standup (15 mins) The daily standup is a foundation of the agile methodology. This is a quick, daily huddle to take the project's pulse and help your remote team focus on the work of the next 24 hours. Unless you have a really large team, this meeting should take no more than 15 minutes. Try to schedule it as early in the day as possible (keeping in mind different time zones), and focus on three key questions:
1. What is everyone planning on accomplishing in the next 24 hours?
2. What do they need to complete that work?
3. What hurdles do they think may crop up to stop them from hitting their goals?
Weekly sprints on Tara
Weekly sprint planning A sprint planning meeting should happen every week, to plan (or adapt the plan for) future sprints. At Tara, we usually allocate 30-45 minutes on Thursday or Friday to plan next week’s sprint. This meeting should help provide the structure, set the expectations, and define the backlog for your upcoming sprint. It needs to answer the questions, “What can be delivered in this next sprint?” and “How will we accomplish that goal?”
Weekly story time We use this meeting as a pre-planning meeting with the team to discuss the next sprints. At Tara, we call it “Story Time,” and we typically host these meetings on Thursdays at 9:30 am, right before our standup. This meeting is your chance for everyone to sit down and review upcoming work so your team has time to think through and ask questions on the requirements, design specs, and implementation plan, and then work on breaking everything into development tasks before the planning meeting.
Weekly engineering demo/Weekly sales meeting The engineering demo or sales meeting is a key step in completing any product sprint. It’s your team’s chance to show off their hard work and keep stakeholders engaged in the project. It’s also your opportunity to answer questions and gain feedback. The weekly demo should focus on celebrating team wins and promoting team collaboration.
Monthly retro Scrum centers around flexibility, organization, and continuous improvement. Not everything will go exactly as planned, and a monthly retrospective is your team’s opportunity to look back at how the month went and figure out how to make the next month even better. This meeting gives your team a chance to candidly discuss what worked well and what didn’t. It’s a moment to bring up areas for improvement and to brainstorm as a team how you can become more effective and productive.
3/ CREATE DISCUSSION CHANNELS FOR A MORE COLLABORATIVE ENVIRONMENT
Live chat is a powerful resource for remote teams, but if every conversation flows through one channel, information will quickly get lost. Plus, if people continually see a deluge of information that has nothing to do with them, they can disconnect.
Use channels for separate discussion topics to better manage your online communications and avoid information overload. We use a dedicated channel for engineering teams to discuss tasks, technical issues, and share engineering resources, so our engineers can find key info in one central place, and that information isn’t flooding the people who don’t need to read it.
Create dedicated channels for separate groups, topics, sprints, etc. as needed. You can even create a “watercooler” channel just for social communications and team bonding.
4/ ENCOURAGE REAL-TIME TEAM COMMUNICATION (VIDEO CHAT)
Video chat is a stronger, more valuable form of team communication than written or over the phone. Video chat helps you remember your teammates are real people, and enables you to feel closer to them. Plus, it can convey important body language that isn’t captured in the other remote communications, meaning fewer misunderstandings and more effective discussions. At Tara, we love using video chat for our meetings. We’ve also set up several fun video conferences to help boost team bonding and cut down on isolation. These include virtual lunches, Workout Wednesdays, house tours, Furbaby fifteens (where our pets join the call), and more!
5/ FIND A SMART WAY TO KEEP TRACK OF TEAM PROGRESS
Finding a way to effectively keep track of development progress is a challenge for remote teams. Managers can be tempted to micromanage to overcome this hurdle, but that will negatively affect your team and harm productivity. We believe in actively cultivating a friendly, collaborative, and communicative work environment to help empower and encourage our team.
By using the right software and solid work structures, you can track your team’s progress and keep a handle on how things are going without micromanaging and constantly nagging for updates. We use naming systems, documentation, tagging, and workflow, among other things, to keep a handle on who’s working on what, who had it last, who’s getting it next, and when it’s done. Plus, Tara helps us gain visibility into the team's progress by effortlessly viewing open pull requests, task completion, completed effort, and more.
6/ USE TIME ZONES TO YOUR ADVANTAGE
There are obvious benefits of having your team all in one timezone. It makes it a lot easier to schedule group meetings, for one. But, there are also significant advantages of having your team spread across multiple time zones.
Are some of your developers working while it’s night time for others? This presents a unique opportunity for your team to achieve “round the clock” productivity. When it’s time for one team member to end their day, they can pass the work off to someone just starting their shift. Plus, if your developers are ahead of your reviewers' time zone, their work can be reviewed in their off-hours, cutting down on delays and speeding up turnaround.
If there’s at least some overlap in time zones, we at Tara find those hours are best used for collaboration and connection. Then, your team can focus more on productivity during the quiet times when fewer team members are logged in.
Team collaboration is critical for any team to succeed. But, creating and maintaining a collaborative environment can be challenging when your team works remotely. By implementing the six tactics outlined above, you can foster collaboration among your remote team to help them improve their efficiency and productivity, resulting in more successful projects.