What we forget to talk about when we talk about remote teams

There are many articles out there that advise on how distributed teams or remote workers can collaborate more smoothly, and you can pick up a lot of practical tips from them — how to deal with time zones, ideal meeting structures, recommended tools etc. So many tools. 

However, there’s little talk of the base assumption that must exist and carry through the collaboration, and that’s that all parties must believe it’s fully possible to achieve great results together. 

I was recently asked by a harried project manager having communication issues with a UX designer on the other side of the world, “I find it so hard to work with someone whose desk I can’t drop by… do you think this collaboration is really possible?”

I answered, “Of course. (duh)”

Okay, not the most helpful answer. The question had taken me by surprise though, and I had to think a moment before adding, “…but not if you’re not both invested in making work. Didn’t you choose this designer because her skills and experience were the best fit for this project? What actions are the two of you taking to make sure you’re both happy working from different locations?”

Not much, it turns out.

A few days later, said designer reached out to ask me the same question. Do you believe it’s possible for a remote team to design a product? You can see where the point I want to make in this post came from 😎

I gave a similar answer, and we agreed that, in this specific case, the designer had more agency to make changes.

Here are some topics we discussed:

  • Chose the right tool for the people involved. In this case, it was less Trello, and more Basecamp messages. The PM had a dozen other work streams to take care of, and the mental load of dealing with lots of Trello card updates was overwhelming. The designer could capture bigger batches of progress into a fleshed out Basecamp thread.
  • Experiment with different media. A project member showing work for someone else to take action on — which is most of our work, isn’t it? — should make the effort to tailor their delivery so this specific colleague has the best chance to can run with it. Some people want to read a description of the process, some are reassured by frequent screenshots in Slack throughout the day, some need to hear you talk through it. Use text, images, video, whatever is at your disposal! And don’t forget to get feedback — this is a two way process.
  • Be flexible about availability for calls. The peace of mind that teams can have when you know that teammates will make the best effort to be available if you need it is not to be sneezed at. And a prompt offer to set up a call goes a long way to diffuse tensions. An occasional early morning, late afternoon, or late lunch needs to be acceptable as long as the load is distributed.

Honestly, none of these ideas are groundbreaking and it only took a few minutes of throwing around ideas to get here. But it was enough to spur real change that would start to unclog the communication problems and make the project more enjoyable for everyone involved.

I’m not saying that a distributed team is going to be as “easy” as being in the same office. Of course it’s easier when your buddy is sitting next to you and you’re taking lunch and coffee breaks together. But as long as you believe this is the best team for the job, you’re selling yourself and the team short by questioning if a wonderful collaboration is possible. Because the rest will flow from that, and the teamwork is what will carry you through the difficulties that will inadvertently pop up over the course of the project.

Happy remote working!