Managing a remote working team isn’t as scary as it might seem. You need to focus on two changes:

  1. Embrace digital working.
  2. Compensate for the fact that your team isn’t in the same room as you.

Here are my guidelines on running an effective remote working teams.

  1. Select the right collaboration tool.
  2. Curate the working practices.
  3. Ensure the work is tracked.
  4. Establish weekly goals.
  5. Keep an eye on people’s working hours.

Select the right collaboration tool.

Having a set of digital tools that support ‘open’ conversations is essential, it is the bedrock of a functioning remote working team.

The primary goal is to create a digital environment where the team communicate as effectively and freely as if they are in the office together.

The secondary goal is to create a digital environment where discussions are open and accessible to team members so they can absorb what’s happening in other projects/discussions with having to be directly involved.

The secondary goal is the hardest to understand, but consider what happens in the office. You and a colleague might be discussing a issue on a project, another colleague might overhear and provide some insight which helps to resolve the problem quicker.

When everyone is working remotely, all there is is what’s visible on the screen. If that conversation isn’t happening in an open channel, then there is no way that other colleague could ‘overhear’ and jump in to help. They simply have no idea that conversation is happening.

Over the years, I’ve used several different tools to support this type of digital collaboration: Skype, Basecamp, Slack and Microsoft Teams. All have their pros and cons, and any one of them will help you to be successful. 

My advice is choose a tool which allows you to configure the notification settings. With all these open conversation going on you don’t want the team to enter notification hell. One of the benefits of remote working is to reduce interruptions, not increase them.

The collaboration tool should be set to DO NOT notify unless a person’s name, @all, @channel or @everyone is specifically mentioned (this is called an @mention, as most notification keywords start with the @ symbol). 

This puts the onus on the person writing the message to be clear who they want to be made aware of it, and reduces the interruptions on the rest of the team.

Curate the working practices

When embedding remote working practices into a new team I know that i’m going to have to curate the process.

My job is to remind everyone to:

  • Use the tools,
  • Track their work,
  • Show their work early and often,
  • Pick the most appropriate communication method — usually prompting people to switch from text to video conference when I can see things are being misunderstood,
  • Stop working ridiculous hours.

Having done this with multiple teams, across multiple organisations, over many years, I know there is no short cut to embedding a good remote working culture. In one particular team I had to call everyone up first thing in the morning to remind them to switch Skype on so the team could communicate effectively.

Start by creating a few core disciplines. These are the practices that as a team you will always follow to ensure you’re able to work well together.

Be contactable

  1. When you’re working, the collaboration tool is switched on and you’re showing as ‘available’.
  2. If you have to pop out, in a meeting, or don’t want to be disturbed you must update the ‘team status’ channel with a brief update on what you’re doing and set yourself to ‘away’ or ‘do not disturb’.
  3. If you have any doubt that what you’re typing is being misunderstood, start a voice or video call.

Workflow

  1. If a task isn’t in ‘In progress’ then it’s not a task, and we have no business working on it.
  2. When a task is moved into ‘in progress’ it has to be assigned an owner; the person working on the task.
  3. A person can only have one task in ‘in progress’ at any one time.
  4. When a task is complete the task is immediately marked as complete, moved to the next column in the workflow, and a comment is added to the task detailing what’s been completed.

Ensure the work is tracked

I’m not talking a time and motion study type tracking here but It’s important for there to be a visible dashboard of what the team is working on, so that colleagues and stakeholders know what’s going on.

We use Trello, a digital kanban board, for this but I’ve also use Microsoft Planner and Basecamp to-do lists, which works just as well.

The purpose of the board is to make visible what the team is working on, and where in the delivery process it is.

I’ve come to believe that constructing a board which shows the state of the task (Backlog, Up Next, In progress, Complete) is a mistake as it’s hard to see from a glance where in the delivery process the task is.

Instead I favour a workflow based board (Backlog, Design, Dev, Deployed to Test, Deployed to UAT, Deployed To Prod), the beauty of this is that you can attach additional meaning to the columns.

For example, I know that when a task is in ‘Deployed to test’ my developer believes they’ve completed the work as per the specification, it’s been tested on their machine, peer reviewed, unit tested and deployed to the test server. When I’ve tested the feature I’ll label it ‘tested’, which is a signal to the developer to deploy to UAT, for further testing. When this is done, the card is moved to ‘Deployed to UAT’ and the tested label is removed.

If this task was visible only in an ‘in progress’ column then the team would have to spend more time interrogating the cards, adding additional statuses, comments and labels just to get the same type of information.

The workflow is visualised from left to right, and the priority of the task runs from top to bottom, with the most important item being at the top. I often use and ‘Up Next’ column to be explicit about what the next most important task is.

The priority order is fluid, we often change priorities based up on stakeholder feedback, or external factors but once a task is in progress it’s there until it’s completed.

I prefer the team focus on one task to completion and will, unless it’s a emergency, not disrupt ‘in progress’ work. Our tasks usually last no more than a couple of days so the delays aren’t great, and the work is staggered meaning that someone is usually free to pick up the ‘emergency task’ sooner.

Establish weekly goals

At the start of each week I like to reiterate to the team, either verbally or digitally, what our goals are to ensure the team is focused on what’s important and to make clear our outcomes for the week.

Keep an eye on people’s working hours.

One of the most frequent questions I’m asked about remote working is “Aren’t you worried that people will get distracted and not put in the hours?”

In my experience the opposite is true, I’ve noticed that every remote team I work with, work longer hours. This is because without a commute people naturally repurpose that time for work, instead of driving for an hour to start work at 09.00, they start work at 08.00. Instead of finishing work at 17.30 to drive home for 18.30 they finish work at 18.30.

I try my best to be aware of the hours my team are putting in and I frequently have to remind them to switch off and stop working, when I believe it’s becoming excessive.

One of the benefits of remote working is a better work-life balance. Working more hours, every single day, is not conducive to that.