Today’s work environment is radically different from the traditional “office culture” of the past. The days of working synchronously together in a cubicle-ridden office from 9 to 5, Monday through Friday, are long gone. Most new startups helm a culture that encourages breaking down those walls, letting users work to their fullest potential however they see fit. The number of employees working from home regularly has risen steadily over the past several years. Major, established companies have gotten in on the action: tech firm Kaplan lets 85 percent of its workers do their jobs remotely.
Modern communication technology enables us to stay in contact in more ways than ever, even when physically distant, but companies still depend on teamwork to succeed. Losing a central office to cultivate that teamwork can be detrimental. However, there are strategies you can use to work together like a team even without a central office bonding you together:
1. Take advantage of technology.
Technology is what enables us to work remotely in the first place, so take advantage of it! There are countless mediums of communication available -- emails, instant messaging, chat programs, video chat programs and, of course, phone calls. Maintaining these lines of communication are essential to working well as a team, so choose your providers carefully. Get everyone using the same suite of programs, and make a plan for why and when to use each medium.
For example, you might use email as a task delegation and meeting recap system, but use instant message programs for one-on-one chats and quick conversations. You might use group phone calls for meetings where one person will do most of the talking, but group video chats when everyone needs to get involved. Each medium of communication has its strengths and weaknesses, so try to take advantage of the strengths and make up for the weaknesses whenever possible.
2. Set clear expectations and workflows.
Another important element of your teamwork strategy is to set clear expectations and workflows from the beginning. The majority of miscommunications happen when something hasn’t been made clear, so prevent that possibility. Let your team know exactly when you expect them to be available, exactly when to use each communication platform and exactly how and when to communicate so you all keep working together.
Along those same lines, it’s a good idea to set up well-documented workflows, especially in a remote working environment that still has a level of supervision. Establish timelines for when work needs to be submitted, to whom it needs to be submitted and how long that person needs to review it. Formalize these systems in documents and charts that everyone in the group has access to. That way, if a question does arise, they can simply reference the master document.
3. Have face-to-face days.
Even if the majority of your time will be spent working individually and remotely, it’s worth the effort to establish occasional face-to-face days. The connective power of face-to-face interactions simply cannot be replaced by technology (at least not yet). These could be certifiable office days, where all of you convene to work together in one location. If you don’t have an office of your own, you could use a shared office space or work at someone’s house.
These days could also have a lighter, more fun tone. For example, you could get together for a potluck or go out to a bar for a team celebration. You don’t necessarily have to meet and talk about work, but you do have to communicate and get to know each other a little better. Building those personal connections is important to maintain and improve long-lasting professional team bonds.
4. Set overlapping hours.
In most professional environments where working from home is the norm, the typical 9-to-5 schedule is abandoned in favor of more flexible working hours. For the most part, this is a boon; it gives people more flexibility to handle the stresses of their personal lives while simultaneously giving them the ability during the hours when they are most productive. However, you may have two team members who prefer early morning work, one that prefers afternoon, and one that prefers working in the evening.
In such a scenario, group work is practically impossible. Messages exchanged come with an automatic several-hours-long delay. If you’re trying to preserve the flexible hours approach, there’s only one real solution: setting overlapping hours when everyone must be online, such as from noon to 1 pm.
If your team members frequently work from home, or if you’re otherwise forced to communicate from a distance, use these strategies to close the gap. Over time, you’ll perfect the strategies that bring your team together.