As someone who's worked remotely for several years, I know the challenges of a virtual workplace. Building relationships with colleagues I've never actually met (in person), working across various time zones, technology that doesn't work the way it's supposed to-- handled wrong, any of these can sabotage your team's chances at success.
Google knows this, too. The company has nearly 100,000 workers spread over 150 cities. In more than 50 countries. On five continents.
In a quest to discover what makes some remote teams successful, Google's People Innovation Lab (PiLab) spent the past two years studying more than 5,000 employees. They measured well-being, performance, and connectedness (among other things) and came up with recommendations on how to keep things consistent, even if your team is spread out across the globe.
So, what did they find?
Well, one conclusion was especially promising:
"We were happy to find no difference in the effectiveness, performance ratings, or promotions for individuals and teams whose work requires collaboration with colleagues around the world versus Googlers who spend most of their day to day working with colleagues in the same office," writes Veronica Gilrane, manager of Google's People Innovation Lab. "Well-being standards were uniform across the board as well; Googlers or teams who work virtually find ways to prioritize a steady work-life balance by prioritizing important rituals like a healthy night's sleep and exercise just as non-distributed team members do."
This is great news because remote work has the potential to greatly lower costs for your business, while increasing employee happiness.
But reaching that potential doesn't come easy. Gilrane also mentions that many who were interviewed said remote work made it "more difficult to establish connections" with their colleagues. It takes extra brain power to schedule across time zones, for example.
"The technology itself can also be limiting," points out Gilrane. "Glitchy video or faulty sound makes impromptu conversations that help teammates get to know, and trust each other, seem like more trouble than they're worth."
So, how do you overcome these challenges?
Google recommends the following three things.
Get to know your people.
Employees value managers and colleagues who care about what happens in their lives outside of work. So, instead of jumping right into an agenda, Google recommends allowing time at the beginning of a meeting for personal conversations, like talking about what you did over the weekend. Doing so helps build connections and establish rapport.
Getting to know your team also includes knowing their meeting schedule. Most people would opt to have meetings on certain days, or certain times of the day. You won't know unless you ask.
Also, try to schedule meetings on a rotation that accommodates everyone. And if there's a need for someone to join off-hours, a little acknowledgment and thank you can help them feel that their effort is appreciated.
Set clear boundaries.
"Norms set clear expectations for how your team works together," write the researchers. "But they're often assumed rather than explicitly stated, leaving opportunities for confusion."
So, instead of making assumptions or leaving things to chance, clearly communicate guidelines regarding the following:
- Communication (e.g., answering emails/pings off-hours, expected response times, information-sharing across time zones)
- Meetings (when team members should and shouldn't join meetings off-hours)
- Schedules (personal time, vacation, etc.)
And the more you can include your people in developing these norms, the better.
To build trust and connection with your colleagues takes effort. Even more so when those colleagues are hundreds--or even thousands--of miles away.
So, the researchers recommend making an extra effort to connect on a personal level. "Pick up the phone or send an instant message to ask about their day [or] weekend plans," they write. Use one-to-one meetings to discuss your people's experience, and how you can better support and include them.
Finally, remember that for all these suggestions, there is simply no replacement for in-person interaction. So, arrange opportunities to bring the full team together in one location as often as you can. Make these meetings special, celebrating the team and its hard work. For those who absolutely can't make it, invite them to connect virtually and do what you can to make them still feel like part of the occasion.
Putting it together
Never underestimate the role you play as a manager or team lead. "We found managers leading by example and making an extra effort to get to know distributed team members can be extra impactful," writes the research team.
"A little rapport goes a long way."
Remember that the most efficient way to get a job done is not always the best way to get it done--and this applies even more so in the virtual workplace.
Instead, take the time and invest the resources needed to take care of your people, and you'll start to unlock the true potential of remote work.