5 Ways to Collaborate Effectively When Your Team Is Remote

Doug Staneart  |  May 28, 2020
last updated

During the Covid-19 outbreak, teams had to collaborate remotely out of necessity. As we started opening things back up, however, you might have decided to continue encouraging remote collaboration. But even with the time we spent working remotely, we haven’t quite nailed it yet. I still find business owners asking how to collaborate effectively if your team is remote. For instance, how often do your team members have a brainstorming session with each other? These kinds of casual conversations happen easily in physical environments. And just like that, a solution is spontaneously created and implemented. But in the world of virtual teams and video calls, we haven’t quite found the right solution for that casual “water cooler talk” that leads to spur of the moment solutions. This is just one of the many kinds of interactions that only exist in the physical office.

That being said, remote teams certainly have their advantages. For one, it’s easier to amplify messages across the organization. With the right tools, regular check-ins are possible simply by having everyone jump ion on the same call. You can immediately discuss best practices, clear goals, and more in these team meetings.

So as bad as quarantine was for everyone, there were definitely a handful of positive outcomes, as long as you’re willing to adapt to remote work environments.

If you want your team to succeed in a remote setting, check out our 5 secrets to success in how to collaborate effectively when your team is remote.

Encourage Remote Collaboration

  1. The Power of Group Think — When Teams Collaborate, Creativity Increases Exponentially.
  2. As the Team Leader, Fight the Urge to Dominate the Remote Meeting. (This Stifles Creativity.)
  3. When Collaborating as a Team, Start with Green-Light Thinking Before Moving to Red-Light Thinking.
  4. 3 Remote Collaboration Tools to Make the Process More Efficient.
  5. Mini-Teams and Breakout Rooms Allow Leaders within the Teams to Surface and Increase Leadership Skills.

The Power of Group Think—When Teams Collaborate, Creativity Increases Exponentially.

Anytime you get multiple minds together to solve a problem, you will increase creativity. Each of us has our own experiences, after all. And as a result, we tend to see things a specific way based on what our expectations are. When we add a second person to the process, new possibilities develop. The new person doesn’t have the same experiences or expectations as the rest of the team. Two people working to solve a problem increases the chances of finding a solution more than either of those people on their own.

One of the best movie-adaptations of this process is in the movie Apollo 13. An explosion on the rocket caused the three astronauts to have to cram into a two-man capsule. They were running out of oxygen and supplies were limited. The engineers back at NASA had to come up with a way to filter the air using just the equipment available in the capsule.

The team leader empties a box of random items onto the table in front of his team. He then holds up two filters — one square and one round. As he looks at his team, he says, “We have to find a way to fit this (the square filter) into a hole made for this (the round filter,) using only these (the items on the table.)” It is hard to say if a single person would have come up with the solution, but the team did.

Likewise, you have to keep this spirit of collaboration alive in your remote work culture. Obligatory virtual meetings where everyone has their webcams off and microphones muted won’t get you there. Effective collaboration only comes when teams are tasked with tackling a common goal. So next time you schedule your video meetings, realize that setting the topic and having people speak up is crucial to make up what you’re lacking from in-person meetings.

As the Team Leader, Fight the Urge to Dominate the Remote Meeting. (This Stifles Creativity.)

Team leaders, you may have realized that leading a remote team is much more difficult than leading a team in an office. In fact, leading a remote team meeting is even more difficult. When a team is in a meeting room, clear communication is much easier. Not only are we communicating with our words, but team members also see our body language. In virtual conversations, a lot of the communication process is muted. So, when we lead a video conference, one of the main challenges is that we may not get the feedback and input we need or are used to.

What many leaders will do is fill in the “dead space” by continuing to talk.

Years ago, since my company started as a virtual company, we decided it would be a good idea to have regular meetings through a weekly conference call. This was before Zoom, so we did this via telephone. The first week was great. Since many of the team members had never met each other, I had each person introduce themselves. After the introduction, I had the team tell the group what projects they were working on. The meeting was fantastic. We felt like a warm team.

A year later, the calls were entirely different. I’d speak for five to ten minutes giving updates to the team. Then, I’d set aside time for the team members to update us on what they were working on. I’d say something like, “So, let us know what you guys are working on…” And then, I’d wait. (Dead silence.) I’d wait. (Still silence.) When the silence got too uncomfortable, I’d just start talking again.

The meetings became a chore. The fun was gone.

The thing that changed, though, was me. Early on, I positively encouraged the interaction. When team members added to the conversation, I praised them. In the later calls, though, it just seemed easier to do the talking myself.

Don’t fall into that trap. With the technology today, it is much easier. Encourage your team to turn their cameras on. Send them an agenda ahead of time showing what you will be covering and what they need to prepare to discuss. If you do these things, you will have more successful collaboration.

When Collaborating as a Team, Start with Green-Light Thinking Before Moving to Red-Light Thinking.

As your team begins to share ideas, be careful not to quash the creativity before it gets started. There are two types of responses to new ideas.

Red-light thinking is where we are trying to judge the effectiveness of the idea. We want to test the idea. Green-light thinking is where we want to increase the number of ideas. The goal is to get more ideas on the table before we start to judge them.

Our nature is to be more judgmental than accepting. As a result, we will often listen to ideas with a “red-light” focus. Unfortunately, when you do this in the early stages of collaboration, the ideas tend to stop. (No one wants to be judged by the boss.)

One thing that you can do is set aside a short period of time to just voice ideas (Or better yet, use some of digital tools below to generate ideas.) During this initial time period, set expectations by encouraging team members to not be critical or judgmental. If you catch a team member slipping into red-light responses, just say, “For now, let’s focus on getting more ideas on the table. We can determine the best ideas later.”

3 Remote Collaboration Tools to Make the Process More Efficient.

If you want to collaborate remotely, you live in a fantastic age. The technology available makes the process much easier. (It also documents the solutions for future reference.) Here are a few of our favorites.

1. Google Drive (Or other Cloud Sharing Service) Allows a Remote Team to Share and Store Documents.

Years ago, when my company was entirely virtual, the most frustrating problem was sharing and storing documents. I’ll give you a couple of examples. We teach hundreds of classes every year. So, our brochures have to be updated every month or two to make sure the schedule is up to date. Our sales team also needs to know what instructors have been scheduled for classes and which are free.

In the past, we used to send the brochures out via email to the entire team. Every Monday, we sent out a calendar with the updated schedules. The processes work pretty well… Except when someone happened to miss an email. Or, if two salespeople decided to book the same “open” instructor for two different classes on the same day.

Google Drive fixed all of that. The brochures, now, are shared documents. So if we change a date in the schedule, the entire team has instant access. The calendars are all shared in the cloud as well. So at any given moment, a team member can look to see what other team members are available.

2. Zoom (or Other Online Communication Platform) Improves Communication During Team Collaboration.

Many of you have likely had a crash-course in Zoom meetings over the past few months. In fact, many of you are probably wishing that you never had to attend another Zoom meeting ever again by now. (If you are, make sure you focus on the first tip above.)

However, if you are like me and cut your teeth in the age of conference calls, you realize how big of a breakthrough visual meetings are. Much of the communication process takes place with the eyes. We watch the facial expressions and the movement of the person. Each of these things helps reduce miscommunication. At the end of the day, as long as you make your Zoom meetings interactive, you can increase communication very effectively.

3. Slack Eliminates Internal Email and Chats and Documents Team Communication.

One of the best remote collaboration tools of all time is Slack. We absolutely love this tool. In the past, if I were emailing back and forth with a team member, the team member and I were the only ones who could see the conversation. I’d find myself sending group emails. Then one person with a question hits “reply all.”

The worst is group chats. Have you ever been added to a group chat that keeps going on and on and doesn’t really concern you at all? It is annoying.

Slack fixes a lot of this. Slack is like a combination email service and chat service. However, the discussions are divided into channels based on topic, so the real-time communication doens’t become overwhelming. For example, the marketing department might have a few channels. One might be for new social media posts. Another might be the current marketing brochures. A final channel might be internal communications between the marketing team about internal marketing projects.

If a salesperson wanted to see what social media posts were released this week, she could just go to that channel. She doesn’t have to email anyone or call anyone. She also doesn’t have to search through endless emails about internal marketing processes. It is efficient and easy.

Slack also allows you to link other remote collaboration tools like Google Drive and Zoom. So, when marketing updates a brochure, they can just add a link to the brochure channel.

Mini-Teams and Breakout Rooms

Mini-Teams and Breakout Rooms Allow Leaders within the Teams to Surface and Increase Leadership Skills.

Remember that as the team leader, you don’t have to be the ONLY leader of your group. A better strategy is to create mini-teams or use the Zoom breakout rooms to make your remote collaboration more interactive. This is the technique that we use when we conduct our virtual team building activities.

The bigger a remote team is, the less likely team members are to interact with each other (or the leader.) For instance, if you have a one-on-one meeting with someone (either virtually or in-person,) you will likely have a fairly balanced conversation. However, if you have five people meet, the odds that each of the five will participate drops. Increase the number to 10 people, and collaboration drops even more.

An effective way to fix this challenge is to use breakout rooms on Zoom. For instance, when we conduct live virtual team building sessions for 20 people, we will first divide them into breakout rooms just with one other team member. This trains the participants to interact with each other. (If there are only two people meeting, it is easier to get both to communicate.) Later in the meeting, we send them to breakout rooms with two other people. Then later five other team members.

This technique makes it easier for remote team members to collaborate. It also teaches the team members how to collaborate, both in-person and in the remote environment, giving them a chance to group up with members of different backgrounds.

These Collaboration Tools and Techniques Work So Well, You Should Probably Use Them in the Office.

These tools and techniques have produced effective communication for our remote teams. In fact, we’ve chosen to continue to use them as we go back to our office. If they work for your team, you might try that as well!

author Doug Staneart
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Doug Staneart is president of The Leader's Institute ®. He is based in the Dallas, Texas Region. He is a specialist in corporate team building activities and custom presentation skills seminars.
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