Remote work is not new. I have worked remotely on gigs since the early 2000's and if anything the idea and the technology to support it just intensified. There is even the mega-success of Remote Forever helping sell the idea that you can be 100% remote and effective. And i believe in that, I lived that. Many of the folks forced to work from home in 2020 also realized that it is possible, even if it is not their preference.
After these atypical times we lived a lot of people will make the choice to work from home. Some will never set foot in an office again, while others will work remote part time. Polls in magazines and online communities show how impressive the shift and the companies seem all ready to adjust. After all, similar productive on less cost speaks "corporation".
But honestly there are two other common scenarios that have been around for a while and they will finally gain the attention they deserve with all this conversation on remote work: geographically distributed teams and offshore teams. I am separating those because they are usually dealt with differently. Your geographically distributed team is a team from your company but in another city, say Montreal and Toronto and Munich. I've been there. Tons of companies are global and this is a reality. The second type, offshore teams, seems to have become the favorite for companies going through what they call Agile or Digital Transformations. In those cases, more than just being aware of timezone and remote issues, it is important to understand that offshore teams should not be treated differently. The culture that guides your teamwork should be expressed in the relationship you forge with your offshore teams. You integrate them in. You welcome them. There is no paying attention to feelings and overtime for your onshore teams and cranking up the volume of work and disregarding your offshore fellows. We are all humans and we should relate as such: uniqueness and similarities respected and celebrated.
Consider this the tip 0.
The 7 tips
Now onto the tips. They are not extensive, I'd say they are not even just for remote work. But because of how how many things that can go wrong in a remote environment, I consider these 7 tips to be a way of really making the most of your online space.
1 - Design your interactions
I could rename this tip to "Good old facilitation". We are supposed to prepare and structure sessions no matter what to respect people's time. In a remote space, where many of the in-person cues are removed, having considered the timings, the interactions, imagining and preparing for what can go wrong is an imperative. From the moment we send the invites it is already late.
Design from purpose to execution.
2 - Space meetings
Allow for breaks! It is so dreadful to see how calendars fill up with no breathing space. People need time to move, to have a bio break, to empty their minds and prepare for the next meeting. Be mindful, be respectful. Make you meetings less than the full hour to allow those extra minutes for to the attendees to just... be.
Back-to-back meetings are a NO.
3 - Do check-in and check-out
We are talking about human beings here. Giving people time and emotional space to arrive and to leave are a must. It is important to create activities that mark a clear starting point and a closing for the meetings. Reminding everybody of the intention of the meeting, count quorum, do a round of sincere "how are you". Acknowledge the presence of those who arrived just as you would in person. And don't make matters confusing: let people have a clear understanding of when the meeting is over, be it because the timebox expired or because you finished early. You don't have to keep people hostage till the very last minute of the meeting.
Clearly start and end meetings.
4 - Use good tools and equipment
I feel funny to have to say that one in 2021, but we cannot underestimate the power of proper tools for people. Companies that have their remote employees should be doing the best to provide fast and uncomplicated VPN experiences and offer them great hardware. So, either from your company or your own pocket, you will need quality headsets, quality monitor, camera. It s all about being able to hear and see properly.
And that is just the basics! Working remotely require great tools for collaboration, ideation and co-creation such as Miro, in which you can even add sounds, timer, celebrations. You will need tools for organizing work such as Trello or Monday. Tools for videoconference and file sharing. Anything away from just plain emails. Basically think of any interaction that is inviting and help you be effective.
Effective online meetings require good tools.
5 - Be mindful of backgrounds
Talking about tools, hese days we are all having all kinds of fun with backgrounds: living on a beach, having a neat house. Sometimes we use them for the fun, sometimes just to hide the mess of a forced remote work life creates. While some tools offer a more seamless background experience than others, I consider them a valid resource. Good background images are easy on sensorial information, though. That means no screaming colors, not a lot of text or images in it, no moving parts and distracting or overloading videos and effects.
I would say go and have fun with them, but to an extent.
6 - Think of inclusion
A great number of times online meetings are a glorified version of phone conferences: no one shares screens or video. It is just a bunch of voices on the other side. Point 4 above gets forgotten and robotic voices on the other side of the computer permeate the discussion. Inclusion, especially in the context of remote work, has a lot to do with remembering that people can have visual or hearing impairment. Good remote meetings are constructed with multimedia. Even if no one has a physical impairment, it just helps the whole group with engagement and proper communication. If your icebreaker activities involve the good "walk and stretch", make sure no one in your team has a physical disability, either permanent or temporary. It is our responsibility to try and include everybody because true inclusion breeds collaboration.
Design sessions having disabilities in mind.
7 - Invite all voices
I find this one actually easier online than in person. People have different personalities and levels of knowledge, but given the chance they can all contribute. Some people will be rather introverted while others can't stop talking! Design your sessions combining individual post-it time or silent time with small group sharings. Only then bring the discussion to a full or larger group. It is hard to coordinate speech in larger groups even in person anyway. The point is to make all ideas surface, even from the shy or more reserved ones. And you want to keep the people who take a lot of space a little bit more at bay.
Create a space that allows for equality of contribution.
A word of caution
Mixed of fully remote, online meetings are here to stay. Some might find this environment remarkably similar to meeting people in person, while others find it significantly different. In any case, I recommend you, as the organizer, to always assume it will be hard to meet online. Prepare for the discomfort, for the unknown. Prepare for the failures of equipment. The more prepared you are, the better the experience for your participants.
There will most likely be no in-person meetings so much as more as hybrid modes: meeting in the office with people who are actually remote. And we should be careful to not cause information inequality, which is giving the privilege of quality information and exchanges for those who are in the office, to the detriment of those who are working remotely. If a company assumes hybrid work, it should be prepared to establish that everybody should use a remote mode of meeting, equipment and tools. It might not be everybody's preference, but it is what is fair.
I would say, however, that we should all take the learning of this new way of working to the in-person life. How many meetings have you taken part on that were extremely inefficient, dissatisfying, poorly prepared? I find I've been to many in-person meetings where the quality of the interactions was just plain bad. So I like to look at this ability to have engaging online meetings as a new awakening on how to interact with other human beings, no matter the medum used.
How do you see online meetings? What will you do to make them even better?