As the founder and CEO of a 100% virtual company, whose staff has been working home-based out of different countries since 2012, I was recently invited to participate in a panel conversation about working remotely in distributed teams. The audience consisted of HR professionals representing various midsize companies across different industries, who were discussing the challenges their organizations are facing post-lockdown as their employees return to a hybrid world of work. What struck me was how many of them had focused on issuing policies, rules, and guidelines around office attendance schemes, Covid testing, hygiene protocols – but not many raised the “soft factors” that make virtual work effective.
Based on almost 10 years of experience and with combined input from several GAIA Insights staff members, here are our Top 5 Tips for distributed teams in a remote workplace:
1. Setting the Tone
It may sound like a platitude, but we find it to be true: A shared purpose and strong vision serve as a solid foundation from which trust and team spirit can grow. Integrity, transparency, and goodwill must be embodied by everyone in the company, top down, left and right, to establish an environment of psychological safety for everyone. Two of my personal favorite mantras include “extend trust first” and “assume positive intent”. None of this is exclusive to virtual workplaces, of course, but not being physically together makes it even more important to set the right tone for the organization to thrive. Once established, it takes conscious effort to foster, maintain and protect team trust and the intangible atmosphere people sense when they are working together.
Building on the foundation are “hygiene factors” – the kind of characteristics that won’t necessarily increase satisfaction but can cause huge dissatisfaction if they are not adequately addressed. In our experience, they can be summarized in two words: clarity and access. Clarity around roles and responsibilities (who does what), around processes and expectations (how things are done) and around the granted level of flexibility (e.g. people’s accessibility/work hours). Access refers to a reliable, practical, and user-friendly IT infrastructure that gives people easy access to all relevant materials, while complying with confidentiality and data privacy requirements. Housekeeping is best supported by solid onboarding practices and effective IT Support.
Again, how we communicate matters in any workplace, yet there are a few things which may need to be purposefully engineered in a virtual environment, that would come more naturally face-to-face. For example, at GAIA Insights we strive to respect people’s individual preferences around communication style, times, and channels. We make an effort to actively engage, get to know each other and ask for help. We invest in skill development around addressing tensions among colleagues, and we rather overcommunicate to ensure everybody feels included. Apart from an efficient use of shared mailboxes, calendar and task management as well as meeting practices, we make a dedicated effort and spend time and resources to socialize in our virtual workplace.
One question I was asked on the panel was whether I believe that remote working could be implemented in any company. While I think it can work for any organization (provided their business model allows for it), I do not think it is for every individual. In fact, making candidates’ suitability for a virtual workplace a distinct selection criterion during the hiring process can help avoid disappointment and frustration down the line – on both sides. Being effective, successful, and happy in a distributed team takes significant discipline and self-motivation. You need to be able to tune out distractions, manage your time day in and out, set and constantly adjust your priorities, plan your deadlines and stick to them. Even on days when you don’t feel like it.
Last but not least, all of the above is pointless if people lack the relevant skills to establish, maintain and protect a healthy work life balance. This is uniquely different for everyone, and it deserves attention and training. We all hear about an increase of mental health issues, zoom fatigue and computer vision syndrome since more and more people stare at various screens all day long. At GAIA Insights, we practice and encourage strategic recovery, nutritious snacks and hydration, movement breaks and mindfulness exercises. We provide our staff with tips around a safe workplace and equipment. Whereas this is often considered a “nice to have”, we strongly believe that a proper balance is the secret ingredient to effective remote work, and we experience the benefits every day.
In conclusion, it doesn’t happen by coincidence but with a bit of a conscious effort and deliberate practice, you can make virtual work effective and enjoyable. To find out what works for your team and organization, don’t be afraid of experimentation resulting in trial and error. Ultimately, anything that brings your team closer together “in spirit” will enhance business performance. Because in the end, effectiveness is anchored in meaningful interpersonal connections, rather than post-pandemic workplace policies.