Chances are, you’ve found yourself in more online meetings than ever. It’s hard to know when people will return to offices and feel comfortable meeting in person again. Going 100% remote brings unique challenges to teams and collaborative work.
As many of our work lives have dramatically changed, the way we work has to change too. It’s not enough to take what you do, slap it into Zoom or another video conferencing tool, and expect teams to seamlessly make the transition to working virtually. Here are some best practices that might be helpful for your remote collaboration.
Be Clear About the Goals
Think about an experience where you maybe felt confused or frustrated in an online meeting or remote collaboration session. What frustrated you? Was it clear to you what was happening? Did you know what you were expected to do? Where? How?
The easiest way to lose the focus, and possibly engagement, of a participant is to fail to describe what you want from them and why you’re inviting them to a session.
In advance, clarify what you’re trying to accomplish and the expected outcome. It could be a list of action items, an agreement, or simply a conversation to explore an idea.
Work backward from the meeting goals to figure out how to craft a space to achieve those goals.
Tools like Miro, Mural, Jira, and Trello can help you digitally collaborate. Some things to keep in mind:
- The tool should support the process that will help participants meet your goals. Goals first, tools second.
- Evaluate the accessibility of tools available to your participants. Many large companies restrict use of certain tools and that can represent a roadblock. Pay attention to accommodations needed so that everyone can engage.
- Give people clear information for the best setup for a session. For example, if you’re using a tool like Miro or Mural, having the app open, in addition to being on the video conference, could be the best setup for accomplishing the work. In the best case scenario, it’s easier with at least two monitors. Tell them that ahead of time.
Think About the Camera
What does it say to you when someone is looking elsewhere or down? How is it for you when someone on your screen is walking through a space and you’re getting the bounce-cam view?
We lose all physical context and cues when working digitally. Making a gracious, safe, and inviting space for remote collaboration requires a little more work in the digital world.
Articulate and agree to your camera standards ahead of time. Turning on your video helps everyone have a greater sense of engagement and empathy. However, consider turning off your camera if you have to step away or attend to a distraction, just as if you had stepped out of the room to attend to something during a physical meeting. With clients, it’s more delicate - you might need to ask for their engagement. With colleagues, make agreements about how to work together.
Help the Conversation Flow
How many times have you stumbled over someone? Or been talked over? Struggled on a phone to be as engaged as the folks on the computer?
Set expectations around how the meeting conversation flows. The larger the group, the more challenging it can be challenging to make sure everyone gets heard. Some things you can do:
- Establish how you will take turns. Visual cues can be difficult to use, depending on the number of participants and the configuration of each person’s settings. Consider using the chat and asking people to “line up” there by typing a single word or raising their hand to speak. Have an alternate method for folks only on the phone.
- Assign someone to monitor the chat if it is a larger meeting. This allows the meeting facilitator to focus on moving the session forward. The person monitoring the chat can then work with the facilitator to help the conversation flow.
- Establish how the chat will be used during the meeting. Is it strictly functional (sharing links, raising hands) versus commentary (making suggestions, other comments)? Notice what happens if a viable thread of conversation happens in the chat while people are talking. Is this helpful or does it split needed focus? Determine how you want to use it and address this dynamic ahead of time so everyone knows the expectations.
Think of a time you entered a digital environment that wasn’t your thing. Maybe it was a game. Or an application to get something done. Maybe it’s a digital collaboration tool like Miro or Mural. How did it feel to be a little disoriented? Confused? How might that feel for team members or clients?
Setting up a situation where a participant fumbles with technology can cause quick disengagement. Instead of focusing on the matter at hand, they feel frustration and possibly even a little embarrassment.
Make time to get everyone oriented at the start of remote collaboration sessions. It can help to have a pre-work task to orient to the goal and methods within the session. But never expect that the pre-work will be done. Always leave a little time for this at the start.
If you are a participant, don’t be afraid to call it out if something isn’t working right or you’re confused. Chances are, you’re not alone and you’ll be doing the group a great service.
Have a Plan B
Have you gotten the dreaded “your connection is unstable” message? Planned to use a tool and discovered that some combination of events makes it unavailable at the last possible moment?
Be prepared and have an alternative plan just in case. It sends a message to participants that you value their time and engagement.
Don’t be afraid to go lo-fi. If collaboration tools fail, improvise. Can you have people put ideas on post-its, take photos, and share? Think it through and have something in mind in case you have to pivot quickly.
Practice. Grab some teammates for a walk-through. Use a smaller, more sympathetic audience to test out technologies and ideas.
Has energy dropped? Have you been working for a while? Or are you just coming back after lunch? Have you or your colleagues hit Zoom fatigue?
More than likely, you spend even more time in front of monitors. The walk around the building? Shifting places from meeting room to office? Those probably aren’t happening.
Take time to invite participants to stand up, stretch, or do something physical. It improves engagement and everyone will appreciate the boost in energy and attention to their physical experience.
Do a Retrospective
Check in with participants and find out what worked and what didn’t. Often, the best insights come from trying things - and sometimes failing. Figuring out how to work is an iterative process. And what works with one type of meeting, remote collaboration session, or group might not work with another.
With clear intentions, overt communication and good planning, this time working 100% remote can actually bring us closer together.
Just as people began working at home full-time, I had the good fortune to be in an Online Facilitation Masterclass with other facilitators - product managers, agile coaches, user experience designers - where we explored how to help people work together in virtual space. Led by Daniel Stillman, who just published Good Talk: How to Design Conversations that Matter, we spent 4 weeks trying things out and practicing with one another. The combination of that experience, plus more than a decade working with collaborative teams scattered across continents and time zones, and the past year and a half co-leading teams at 1904labs, inspired this list of best practices to enhance remote collaboration and teamwork.