THE BLOG
05/02/2016 01:18 pm ET Updated May 02, 2017

How to Stay Productive and Connected on a Remote Team

The New Way to Work

Quick: name three jobs you are positive can't be done remotely.

Maybe you came up with marriage counseling, copyright law, and investment banking. Because of course those jobs require people to be in a place.

But here's the thing: that's not true anymore.

Marriage counselors are talking with patients from their homes over Skype. Copyright lawyers are working from beaches in Thailand. Investment bankers are managing finances from coffee shops, couches, and co-working spaces all over the world.

Remote work has become a common way of working, and career options have been steadily climbing for the past decade. A 2015 Gallup poll found that 37% of people work remotely, up from 30% 10 years ago. And in 2016 it's projected to climb as high as 43% -- that's 63 million people from the U.S. working wherever they please, anywhere in the world!

Remote Teams Are Different from Localized Teams

Working on a remote team, or working remotely on your own has some specific advantages and challenges, just like working with a localized team. In fact, all working teams share common issues, but remote work requires different tactics to make sure that things run smoothly.

Remote work comes with awesome perks.

Remote work is unique in that you can work from anywhere you want. This means that if your employees want to work from home, they can. If they want to travel while working, they can. If they want to work at a coffee shop, that's okay, too. It gives people a high level of independence over their work style and environment, which research shows makes people far more happy with their jobs, and more productive.

This works especially well for teams that are measured on results, and not just how visible they are, or how many cat memes they can send out in one day.

But location-independence also presents a huge challenge.

The biggest downside to working remotely is the distance, both literal and metaphorical, between your coworkers.

It's hard to connect and create good relationships when you're never (or rarely) in the same room.

How to Create a Killer Remote Team

Since remote work is the way of the future, it's best to figure out now how to create a remote team that can stand the test of time and go the virtual distance.

Here's advice from four different companies with completely remote teams, to help you build remote business that lasts.

Create a great culture.

Creating a company that's a great place to work, and has people clamoring to work for you requires many different things, but the foundation is a great company culture.

This isn't just for the huge corporations, but is just as important (maybe more so) for smaller and mid-size companies.

Creating a company culture when no one is sitting together is tough. But it is possible.

Make a personal connection through chat

Personally connecting to one another is crucial to helping your team view each other as coworkers, not just an email address on the screen. Chat platforms like Slack, WhatsApp, and Line are great at bringing people together.

Jill Jensen, Executive Assistant to Ramit Sethi at I Will Teach You To Be Rich suggests "creating some channels in your communication platform to talk about fun things. Posting pictures of pets and workspaces, or celebrating birthdays, lets you learn more about the person you're working with."

Create trust by getting to know someone on a personal level before you jump into work

You can't work well with people you don't trust. This is particularly true if the person you're working with is halfway across the world.

Hoon Russell is the founder of the virtual design agency Drip Drop Creative, and is busy managing a remote team that's all over the world, from Poland to India to the US.

Since her team is so spread out, she works hard to create trust from the outset.

She finds one of the best ways to do this is to start off by "explaining how we're a bit different from a normal agency, and by getting to know each other on a personal level before we get started."

It's also important to show that trust goes both ways, which she does by delivering payments on time, and working with whatever payment system is easiest for them. Her contractors show they're trustworthy by committing to her most important expectation -- delivering on deadline.

Get as much face time as possible with video calls

For remote teams that are spread out all across the world, video calls and meetings have a huge impact on making people feel like they're part of the team, and that they really know one another.

Heather Lee, the Director of External Communications at Remote Year, says they rely heavily on video calls so that they can see one another frequently, since the team is spread out across four different continents.

It's important that they keep the lines of communication open, through chat platforms, but they also rely heavily on video calls. Because of this they've "built quite strong relationships with each other over video chat. And of course, being constantly on the road, we do meet each other in person at some point and have a drink or three together."

Keep your sense of humor and conversations light

Remote teams can lack a lot of context that we rely on not just as work, but as humans. When you're not going into an office every day, you don't know the personal intricacies of each person in the same way; simple things like what they like to eat for lunch, when they're worried, or even overhearing their conversations.

Ian Murphy, Marketing and Content Strategist at Copter Labs, a web development agency, thinks that in order to create a great remote culture you do have to work a bit harder at it than if you're in the office every day.

That means keeping your sense of humor and a willingness to "keep things light. [Copter Labs has] a very playful atmosphere, exchanging silly GIFs via Slack chat (a crucial tool for our company) and other Internet ephemera. We have a lot of work to do, but when you see a cat short its jump from the kitchen table to the counter, it's somehow not so bad."

Making a point to always thank people for their work builds appreciation and respect -- especially if that praise happens in front of a client. Murphy thinks "that's the sort of thing that can get lost easily while we're crunching to get everything done, the sort of thing that would be mentioned in the hallways or the parking lot of a physical office."

Be productive from anywhere.

So with all this talk of video calls, Slack channels, and cat GIFs, how can remote teams stay connected while actually getting work done?

The fact is, remote workers are at least as productive and often more productive than those working in an office. In a recent study 2/3 of employers said that their employees were more productive when they worked remotely.

Staying productive in a world full of chat rooms, procrastination, and cat videos.

While productivity can increase for remote workers, it's also easy to get side-tracked doing "research", or take a 15 minute break watching videos that turns into 45 minutes, or try to get a quick question answered in chat that ends in a 20 minute, and hilariously stupid, emoji fight.

Staying productive requires a lot of time management, and a whole lot of shutting things down.

Make scheduled times to talk, and otherwise stay out of it.

The problem with chat isn't usually getting people to do it. It's getting them to stop. And when you're on chat with your boss, everything can feel like a priority.

Each person will have their own schedule that works best for them, but for Jensen, she's created "scheduled times to talk with Ramit 2 -3 times a week, and it's always at the same time. This allows me to decide whether or not something is immediate, or if it's a question that can wait."

Another great way to save time is to come up with a standard operating procedure for tasks that you know will keep coming up. For Jensen, "if it's a repetitive task, we have a quick way for Ramit to write me and I know the standard operating procedure to handle the question."

Be flexible about how you interact with others, so you can get more done.

Since working remotely often means running an entire team, being productive means being able to get in touch with people to give guidance and feedback.

When that's the case, then learning to be flexible with your team's working and feedback style is important to getting great work done. Hoon Russell has "contractors that prefer physical notes, or lists, or discussing theory. Learning their feedback style helps me make sure we all stay on track."

Create set meetings times where everyone is going to come together to talk.

Just like scheduling the times you talk with coworkers is important, so is limiting the amount of time you spend in meetings.
Setting regular times to have a video meeting makes it simple for everyone to know when they're meeting face to face.

At Remote Year, they've created a regular schedule so that "each week there will be a video meetings with the core team, and a monthly video conference with the entire Remote Year staff. At the end of every week, we email bullets with updates on what each department is working on so we're all are able to keep the larger picture in mind."

This works because it lets everybody work freely on their own, but they know that each week or month they'll be sharing their work with the rest of the team.

Limit your interactions so that you're only focusing on what needs to get done.

If you've got the luxury of a smaller team, or your team is based in similar timezones, connecting and collaborating through a platform like Slack can help you get through the day.

When you're working on projects that require collaboration, Murphy thinks it's crucial to have "the ability to put something I'm doing down to answer a co-worker's questions, and then get right back to it as soon as the chat is done. It's not easy, but I haven't found a better way without sacrificing some of the communication."

He says, "Are there times where I have to ignore everything and just grind through something I'm doing? You bet. But I try to at least respond to say "give me 30 minutes," so nobody is left hanging."

And that kind of care, respect, and attention goes a long way in making a remote work team feel like the person is just an office, instead of a continent, away.

Managing Remote Teams Now and in the Future

Managing remote teams isn't all that different from managing a team that's all under the same roof, but the biggest take away is to make time so that people can connect on a personal level. It helps create trust, and a culture of people that care about each other and really know who's on the other side of their computer screen.

Meet the Experts

Jill Jensen, the Executive Assistant to Ramit Sethi at I Will Teach You To Be Rich, has 14 years of experience working remotely, and started doing this before it was, like, a thing. She's inspiring, funny, and on-POINT.

Glenda Hoon Russell, Owner of Drip Drop Creative started out as a designer, realized that she enjoyed managing the projects more than designing them, and has created an international virtual agency that works with freelancers around the world. She has the ability to hire people from all over the world, and get fantastic contractors that have new stories, ideas, and visions, since they're based in completely different places. Harnessing these differences is what makes these teams great.

Heather Lee, Director of External Relations at Remote Year, spends her days traveling around the world, and it's part of her job! She had planned to work remotely and when her friends couldn't go, found Remote year, and now does PR for them in whatever country they've most recently landed in.

Ian Murphy, the Marketing and Content Strategist at Copter Labs, has a history with remote working first with Future Insights, a company that specialized in web development conferences. Copter Labs has employees spread out across the US and the UK.