Guest Post

Habits to Make Remote Teaming Work

Remote teams are distance relationships: the key to making them work is to always have the next date set to see each other set before you say goodbye. When remote teaming goes well, team members are able to maximize focus time and schedule flexibility. 

When remote teaming goes poorly, team members feel isolated and unsure of what to do in order to make meaningful progress. Teams able to set and stick to regular habits and rituals separate good teams from bad. While it could be said to be true for colocated teams as well, regular habits are essential for fully-remote or hybrid teams (colocated teams with at least one remote team member).
Operating a remote team requires designing a great teamwork experience. 
There are 3 buckets to design for. They are:
  1. Planning, executing, and improving: work cycle habits
  2. Comings and Goings: daily and weekly habits 
  3. Celebrating and Strategizing: quarterly and annual habits
These buckets are to be “designed for,” I use the verb “design” because it means intentional choices have to be made the same way a host would design for a party: good choices means the host and guests can relax, bad choices (or no choices) will mean everybody will scramble and focus on getting the basics like food and drink in place over enjoying each other’s company.

1. Planning Executing and Improving


Work Cycle Habits

No matter the complexity of the work your team is set out to achieve, break it down into fixed lengths cycles. Those familiar with agile will call these cycles “sprints.” Do this:

Duration: Pick a work cycle length, if in doubt choose 2 weeks
Plan: Schedule a meeting at the beginning of the cycle to do planning
Unblock: Schedule meeting(s) in the middle of the cycle to update and unblock each other
Reflect: Schedule a meeting at the end of the cycle to reflect and propose team improvements

Duration

Why break a team’s working cycle into a fixed-length? Why not just execute tasks as they come one after the other? The reason is adaptation. Priorities change. Stuff happens. By having a fixed cadence in a highly variable world with fixed meeting rituals, we can mix in new requests with our planned objectives. The opportunity to do this mixing happens during the planning meeting.

Plan

Planning is the process of making a list of new and old work and merging it together into a prioritized list of things to do. Each team will have its own way to plan but here are some guidelines to make it go well:
  • Keep a shared list of things to do
  • Make sure big items are broken down into items small enough to be completed within a single work cycle
  • Make it one person’s job to have the final say in what order things get done, and to begin each planning meeting with the list organized in the order they think it should get completed
  • Allow anybody to suggest adding something to the list
  • Archive items on the list that have been on it for too many work cycles

Unblock

In the middle of the work cycle, set aside at least 30 minutes for facetime to look at the list of things to do and see if anybody is stuck waiting on anybody else. If you have a 2-week work cycle, consider making this a weekly meeting.

Reflect

In order to make work feel meaningful, it is equally important to complete off work items as it is to work on the team itself. Working on the team means meeting for 30–60 minutes at the end of a work cycle to ask “what went well?” or “what could have gone better?” This simple act, frequently overlooked by teams, bakes process improvement into the core operations of a team.
This process is called “holding a retrospective” and many great tools exist to make it easier for remote teams, such as the free retrospective app we’ve created called Parabol.

2. Comings and Goings

Remote team members don’t have the benefit of bumping into each other in the hallway. Unless greetings and goodbyes are ritualized, it’s easy to feel lonely. Consider habits for:
  • Daily comings and goings: saying hi and saying goodnight in a chat channel
  • Weekly comings and goings: stating intent or reminding the team of its priorities at the end of the week, celebrating accomplishments before the weekend.

3. Celebrating and Strategizing

Even with the shorter cycle habits in place, any team’s work can begin to feel monotonous without a break. It is important to establish a habit of reflecting and planning larger periods of work to look backwards and celebrate accomplishments and analyze and integrate vaster sums of information to plan moving forward.

If at all possible, this is a great time to spend travel budgets on getting together and “upgrade the bandwidth” from video conferencing and telepresence to actually being present with each other. Above all: spend the time when in each other’s presence to build memories that otherwise wouldn’t be possible in the virtual realm: go on a hike, break bread together, play games, dance, and get silly.

Learning More about Habits

Many pages have been spent on building, operating, and developing teams. What’s offered here is just a scaffold for thinking about the moments to design on your own team.
For more detail on “the how” of specific meeting formats for several of these moments, such as holding a great remote planning meeting or retrospective, see these resources on the Parabol site for operating remote-first mission-driven teams.

About the Author

As a teen during the 1990’s tech boom, CEO and Founder of Parabol, Jordan Husney was fascinated with connecting people through technology. He spent nearly 20 years at the company as an engineer and product manager to help technology serve people. Later, Jordan joined New York City-based management consultancy Undercurrent as a Director, where he assisted in shaping the futures of Fortune 500 leadership teams at companies such as GE, American Express and Pepsico. While working with multinational organizations stretched across time zones, Jordan began prototyping a new platform that would allow team members, and more specifically, agile teams to work together, better. This platform would later be known as Parabol.
            
Today, Jordan leads multiple facets of Parabol’s growth and success by overseeing new
talent acquisition, funding and product development. He holds several patents in distributed systems and wireless technology and lives with his family in Los Angeles, California.

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