Tips for Remote Collaboration & Functional Work Relationships

Image of woman working on a computer from home

I’ve always worked with non-collocated teams across time zones. While COVID-19 has forced more folks into that working model, taking a whole company (particularly a technology company) to a remote environment is not insurmountable. Some of us return to offices, some stay at home, and others will be somewhere in the middle. Needless to say, remote work is here to stay and whether you have one person remote or thousands, there are some tips and tricks I’ve picked up along the way that might help you and your remote teams collaborate and work better together.

Think “Remote First” & Leave No One Behind

If you’ve ever been the sole person working remote on a conference or video call, you know how hard it can be to participate while folks point to things in the room that you cannot see or have sidebar conversations that mean you can’t hear anything (and that’s supposing they include you on the call). Not to mention it is nearly impossible to be noticed and get a chance to be heard as a remote participant. These scenarios are classic examples where folks are not thinking “Remote First”.

If you go about your daily tasks and participate in meetings being “Remote First”, and acknowledge there are always coworkers that you cannot see or hear in the moment, you will default to more inclusive behaviors. Making sure that everyone on your team is in the loop reduces confusion, increases engagement, and makes everyone’s work day better.

  1. Take some extra time to think about who else could help you or needs to know what you are talking about.
  2. Make space in meetings for the folks off-camera and dialing in.
  3. Think about who you cannot see or hear immediately and make sure to pass along information you learn or decisions you make when they are not present (consider keeping a list of peers, stakeholders, and clients to refer to throughout the day).

Practice Radical Empathy

If you’ve not heard the term before, think of empathy (the ability to understand and share the feelings of another) and make it into an active practice.

It starts with acknowledging that you don’t know how another person feels, what they are thinking, or know what is going on in their life. You just don’t know, not with any certainty. Throw away your jump to conclusions mat, leave shame, blame, and justification at the door, and ignore the tribalistic tendency to think of “us” vs. “them” — you only set yourself up for an increasingly adversarial and combative environment.

Instead, when negative thoughts creep in, pause and take a breath and…

  1. Acknowledge that you do not know what the group or person is thinking.
  2. Remind yourself, you do not have all the context. You do not know what is going on in their work or personal life that could be driving their decisions or behavior.
  3. Ask yourself, have you thought of or treated them like a human?

Important Note: This practice does not recuse bad behavior. No one has a hall pass to treat anyone poorly. This is simply a technique to take a breath and reduce the chance you’ll spend several hours or days swirling, and to create the space to potentially talk to someone from a very human place.

Don’t Be Transactional

Is there at least one person you can think of that any time they reach out they need something? You see their name pop up and you know, instantly, a new task or work is headed your way? Do you like that person very much? No, I didn’t think so.

Don’t be that person.

Not every conversation or interaction between humans should be a clinical exchange. If you actually need someone’s help, take some time beforehand to have a friendly exchange. It doesn’t have to be protracted or intense. Depending on the individual it can be as easy as asking about their day or sending a meme that you know they would enjoy. Demonstrate some interest in them as a person and don’t treat them like a machine that outputs units of work.

Practices that could help you remember to connect with people and reduce the likelihood that you only transact:

  1. Have a list of people you work with regularly to help remind you who you should be connecting with.
  2. If your request is not urgent, choose to have a human conversation today and transact with them tomorrow.
  3. Schedule time on your calendar each day (5–15 minutes) to say hello to one or more people.
  4. Pick 3 people a quarter to get to know better, and schedule bi-weekly or monthly 1:1’s for coffee klatches. Rotate that group each quarter.
  5. Set up remote “walk & talks” for your 1:1s or breaks. Emulate going for coffee with a coworker remotely by chatting over the phone while you both go outside. Walking and a little sunshine is good for you.

Be Easy To Include & Find

When you work with colleagues across various locations and time zones, they need to be able to know when they can get a hold of you. If you are hard to find, inconsistent, always unpleasant, or flakey people will stop reaching out.

While there are other reasons people might not include you, start with what is in your control.

I do not mean to encourage meeting or calendar overload, you should not have to attend every meeting to stay in the loop or have a voice. However, when there are conversations where your contributions would be helpful you want to be easy to include. So make sure to be relevant and top of mind for the people you need to work with closely.

  1. Set clear working hours and hold the line. If you are “sometimes” available in the evening or super early in the morning, people will remember and expect you to be reachable during those times.
  2. Be on time, particularly for meetings you own.
  3. If you RSVP that you’ll be there, be there.
  4. Put your working hours on your calendar. Indicate when you are free and block off time when you are unavailable. You don’t have to publish the reason, just make sure it’s clear.
  5. Each day make sure you respond to outstanding emails, instant messages, calls or texts even if it is just to say you’ll get back with more information.
  6. Share regular updates, even when there is not much that’s new. Weekly quick updates to a group or manager about your progress (or a message on behalf of your team) means that people do not have to track you down or worry about how you are spending your time.
  7. If you are frustrated or upset, you have every right to feel that way. However, don’t put it on display every time someone sees you. “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” If folks only know you as negative, they are less likely to reach out.

Don’t Wait If You’re Blocked — Be 30% More Annoying Than What You Think is Reasonable

When you’re working remotely, it’s often hard to get folks’ attention. People are in meetings, need focus time for work, and have their own problems they are trying to solve. Some are notoriously bad at keeping their calendars up to date, so it can be challenging to know when they are free to connect or respond.

With the above in mind, it is unreasonable to think that a single Slack message or email sent to a busy inbox will be seen quickly, if at all. Even if you are an introvert or don’t want to be a bother, you’ll want to put aside shy or bashful tendencies. Be a bother. Get what you need to be successful.

This is not to say you nag people constantly. Figure out your baseline for a “comfortable” amount of outreach, and push 30% beyond.

Ideas for how to reach out when working remotely to get answers to questions and access to things you need:

  1. If you use Slack or Microsoft Teams, talk in group or team channels. Do not ask questions or make requests in direct messages! Tag groups so they get notifications. More than one person may be able to help you, and it may not be who you thought would respond. (The same applies to emails.)
  2. Don’t wait before reaching out again. People might miss your message, it’s okay to follow up — Instant message platforms, ask and tag the group again in 15 minutes. Phone calls, call back 1–4 hours later. Leave a voice mail or also send a text.
  3. Have a limit for the number of times you go back and forth via email or instant message. More often than not a quick voice or video call will save you hours. For your team, consider a time limit before you automatically schedule a call or start one in the moment. Ah hoc co-working calls are allowed. (e.g., A team agreement that states if the team spends more than 5 minutes messaging on a topic, someone starts a video call and posts the link. All conversation participants join and all team members are welcome.)
  4. Talk with your manager or folks who seem to always have what they need. What do they do? What worked for you in your last gig may not work at your latest job. Learn from folks who have found success in your company.

Share How You Like To Communicate

Everyone likes different types of communication and has different styles. I for one love Slack. It is the easiest, fastest, most consistent way to get a hold of me. I always make sure my teams and the people who work with me know it.

You might be different, maybe you like texts or even old fashioned phone calls. No matter your preference, you should share it with your coworkers, managers, and teams. Similarly, you should know the preferences of the people you interact with. You are responsible for finding out what modalities you need to use to communicate successfully.

Ideas for sharing communication preferences:

  1. Ask. Go to individuals, particularly stakeholders or folks who you need support from, and ask how they prefer to communicate. It’s pretty simple and highly effective.
  2. With your team, make a list of each person’s favorite way to communicate. Put down everyone’s name with their preference, options in case of emergency, and the best times to be reached (particularly if you are in different time zones). Also clarify when people do not want to be bothered.

Hopefully some of these tips and tricks will work for you and your teams. If you have other ideas or recommendations that have worked for you, please share!

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Vanessa Garber

Vanessa Garber

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Geek, Philosophy Nerd, Hiker, Women in Product Chapter Lead and Product Innovation Leader on Sabbatical