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7 tips to collaborate better when your team is online

Georgina Guthrie

Georgina Guthrie

October 28, 2020

Team members are a bit like cake ingredients: good on their own, but when you combine them all together… That’s when the magic happens. (That being said, we do not recommend eating flour on its own.) Or to put it another way, when individuals work well together, they are better than the sum of their parts. So you may be wondering: how do I get my team to collaborate better?

Good teamwork is a mix of effective leadership, open collaboration, and helpful tools to make it all easier. This is especially true for remote teams, which often face additional challenges on top of everything else. Things like communication breakdowns, loneliness, and bad tech can all spell serious trouble for online teamwork.

Buffer’s State of Remote Work 2020 report listed collaboration and communication struggles as the top problem among remote workers. [Image Source]

What is teamwork, and why is it important?

“It is the long history of humankind (and animal kind, too) that those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed.” – Charles Darwin

Teamwork isn’t just something that’s nice to have — it’s essential. It improves productivity. It’s also been proven to lead to higher motivation and staff wellbeing — both of which have positive knock-on effects, including healthier profits. On the flip side, bad teamwork (or an inability to work well together) can be a disaster, eroding morale and damaging employee wellbeing while potentially leading you toward project failure.

Before we take a closer look at how to work effectively as a remote team, let’s run through the potential problems.

Barriers to effective online teamwork

Teamwork is tricky at the best of times, but it’s a whole different ball game online. Here are some common problems to watch out for:

  • Limited voices getting heard: Competitive and entrepreneurial individuals can be great for a team, but only if others get a chance to speak. This is one issue that is often easier to address online since ‘speaking’ isn’t always a question of who’s loudest.
  • Competitiveness: It’s important to moderate bigger personalities when dealing with competition. Unaddressed conflict can tarnish team culture, so it’s important to address these issues early on through intervention.
  • Communication breakdown: It’s easy for team members to stop talking (either on accident or intentionally) when they aren’t physically around each other. This can happen between different types of people due to different cultural backgrounds, language styles, time zones, and more.
  • Bad tech: Inadequate technology hinders communication and collaboration. There are few things more frustrating than trying to find an internet connection or not being able to access important documents when you need them.
  • No shared vision: When people are physically separated, they can also feel separated from the company vision. This could be down to a range of things, from communication breakdowns to not seeing the end product and feeling detached as a result.
  • Not feeling valued: Managers need to take extra steps to provide feedback — good and bad — to help team members feel cared for and valued. It takes extra effort when the team’s spread out across the globe. Even a friendly ‘thanks a lot’ via your business’s chat app could make a world of difference to someone’s motivation.

“Coming together is a beginning, staying together is progress, and working together is success.” – Henry Ford

How to make teamwork work

Everyone needs to know what they’re doing, what their teammates are up to, and what the bigger company vision is. Each individual should also know the importance of working together, without relying too heavily on the initiative of others. Here are some tips on making your remote team work seamlessly.

1. Lead like a true leader

As a leader, it’s important you’re also a role model. When it comes to teamwork, this includes listening well, letting others lead, being as personable as possible, holding yourself accountable for decisions, and fulfilling every commitment — no matter how big or small. These are the same qualities everyone on the team should be striving for — and the boss should be the one setting a good example.

As well as leading by example, you can also make your management style team-oriented.

If you’re a team-oriented manager, you still care about jobs and deadlines, but you focus more on helping people achieve those goals. For example, a team-oriented manager might ask an employee how they feel about their tasks, rather than focusing on deadlines. Checking in regularly is all the more important online because you’re missing that everyday face-to-face contact. Make time to send people chats and emails to see how they’re doing. This helps that person feel cared for while giving you an insight into the general mood of the team.

As a leadership style, it goes hand-in-hand with a bottom-up style of management, which has a much flatter structure: Everyone’s voice is more or less equal. In contrast, a top-down style of management is more about hierarchies. Think of your classic workplace pyramid. If you’re used to top-down working, trusting others to take charge can be a frightening prospect. If you’re in need of extra structure, project management software can help you stay on top of tasks while avoiding micromanaging.

2. Build a culture of accountability

Collaboration is all about everyone working together, but if each individual lacks personal accountability, that can sometimes give rise to a problem known as social loafing.

Social loafing happens when individuals assume the wider team is taking care of something. This results in a widespread ‘it’s not my job’ attitude, which is disastrous for productivity.

Managers can avoid this by ensuring everyone knows both what they’re doing and what they’re responsible for. People who are experts should be given decision-making power in relevant jobs, and everyone on the team should feel empowered to make decisions.

3. Make communication a priority

Finding the right way to communicate as a remote team is essential for success. There needs to be a variety of channels to choose from, plus daily updates as well as guidance on how to use the channels available.

Speaking of meetings: Many remote teams have fewer meetings, when, in reality, the extra contact is even more important when teams are geographically separated. It’s important to have the right mix of meetings — from daily catch-ups on a team chat app to video calls for longer and more detailed discussions.

As important as it is to define how best to communicate with each other, it’s equally important to set boundaries. A call at the wrong time can ruin your focus, as can multiple pings on the chat app. Make it okay for individuals to set ‘busy’ statuses or check emails at set times throughout the day.

4. Create a shared vision

Teamwork is about working together toward a shared goal. A big part of that is celebrating the wins and helping each other out through the rough patches.

Managers should hold regular catch-up meetings to help everyone feel involved as well as share feedback when it comes in. Seeing the results of your work can be incredibly motivating, and while these catch-ups do take extra time, they can foster strong feelings of togetherness and accomplishment among the team.

It’s equally important to hold a post-mortem meeting after the project is complete so the team can join in on the sense of shared ownership.

Top tip: Giving feedback doesn’t have to be hard work and time-consuming. Just a quick ‘great work’ on the chat app is enough to put a smile on someone’s face and help them feel more valued.

5. Provide structure

Structure is all the more important with online teams. When teammates are separated from each other, they can feel isolated and lack direction. Project management tools are essential for remote teams because they allow everyone to log in from wherever they are, access schedules and workflow diagrams, and receive real-time updates and notifications.

Another way to add structure is to create and share a team agreement. This is a document that outlines what’s expected of everyone — from work handovers and work hours to response times and time zones. It’s also a good idea to set out which channels should be used for specific types of communication.

6. Bring people together

It’s easy for remote teams to feel separated from each other. Different time zones and cultural barriers to communication can make communication all the trickier. Throw in a lack of watercoolers and breakout areas into the mix and it’s easy to see how employees can feel distant from each other — something that can spell trouble for motivation.

To build a vibrant workplace culture among remote teams, let people socialize. One option? Create a virtual water cooler. That’s a group or thread on your online chat app that works as a space for people to gather and chat about everything from the latest Netflix series to football results.

Once people start building rapport, they’ll see themselves as more of a team with shared interests and responsibilities.

7. Embrace apps and tools

Teamwork and communication go hand-in-hand. Online collaboration tools like chat apps and project management software are perfect for when face-to-face communication isn’t an option — something that’s becoming more popular as more businesses make the shift to remote work. Use tools that make it easy for everyone to communicate with each other, and teamwork will be that little bit easier.

3 essential teamwork tools to invest in

Fitting your team out with the right tech can work wonders. Here are three of the most popular tools.

File repositories: It’s so much easier for everyone if important docs are shared on the cloud. That means everyone can access the things they need with an internet connection and a password. Dropbox and Google Drive are popular options.

Chat apps and video: Chat apps and video calls are as close as you can get to having a conversation in person. Chat apps are best suited to informal occasions, whereas video is best for serious or more in-depth matters.

Project management software: From real-time Kanban boards and notifications to easy file sharing and wikis, good project management tools make it simple for everyone to stay on track.



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