By Tara Levy
Tips for building collaboration while working remotely.
“Coming together is a beginning, staying together is progress, and working together is success.”
Henry Ford, American industrialist, business magnate and founder of the Ford Motor Company
Today is Tuesnedsday, the 4281th of Marprily. Everything kind of blurs together when you’re staying at home long-term and the closest thing you have to “contact” with the outside world is a video conference call or a waving thanks during a curbside delivery transaction.
Time isn’t the only thing that used to feel specific and precise and now feels amorphous. We have had to come up with new understandings of what school means—and now all work is homework. Business casual now means remembering to put on pants. And by now we’ve all seen photographic evidence of the need to redefine what a haircut is.
The things we knew how to do, the things we understood, the things we claimed as skills—they don’t necessarily transfer to this new paradigm. The pieces of our work worlds that we understood don’t fit together as neatly. Let me be clear, some of this is awesome. Less time commuting is good for us and for the Earth. And there’s the aforementioned lack of pants.
But what about teamwork? How do you nurture collaboration when you have no idea when you’ll see each other? How do you support your team when everyone is so stressed and there’s no timeline for things going back to “normal”?
One of the great things about our current reality is that there isn’t a single right answer, path or resolution. We can try to tweak things we’d done before. We can experiment with things we’d always wanted to try but never got around to. And we can come up with things we’d never dreamt of. (In pre-COVID days, I never would’ve ended a sentence with a preposition and just moved on so confidently!)
So how do you boost morale and help your colleagues stay motivated and goal-focused when you can’t use your time-tested skills and activities?
Here are three principles to help build team cohesion while working remotely:
- Communication before, during and after.
In real estate, it’s location, location, location. In teamwork, communication is your triple threat: communicate, communicate, communicate. Share expectations and invite clarifying questions at multiple stages of a project. You won’t run into folks on the way to the proverbial water cooler, so you need to actively check-in. And use multiple communication channels to keep things fresh and reach different styles of workers. Video conferences are great—except when they’re not. Use tools like Slack or Monday to keep the conversation going online, and break new ground by using your smart phone as a telephone. Ask people what formats they prefer for different kinds of requests and times of day—and try to do what they ask.
- Lemonade > plain lemons.
Channel Beyonce, Bobby Flay, and maybe even Mr. Kool-Aid by adding something sweet to your colleague’s days. Use the company card to place lunch orders for everyone (for delivery, of course) and share a meal together. Use your shared virtual space in the cloud to create community by sharing what you’re streaming and reading. Add some zip to your Zoom by setting your virtual backgrounds to your dream vacation, a landmark from your hometown, a childhood photo, or a setting from your favorite TV show, and set aside time to share and discuss your choices. Enable “Buzzword Bingo” in UberConference. In addition to your “normal” meetings, create completely non-work meetings that people can join if they need a break and connect with another human as a human.
- Carpe new things.
Days may be hard to identify and seize, but there’s still a lot out there to learn. Whether you take the Google approach of designating twenty percent of everyone’s time to innovation and creativity or just recognizing that you’re saving a lot of time in not commuting, walking between meetings, or chatting in offices, hallways, and work kitchens, encourage your team to make and take time to build and share skills. The number of online courses is growing exponentially right now, and many of them are free. In small groups use video conferencing and share screens to tour museums and historical sites and discuss. Connections to work and productivity can spark whether you’re checking out the National Zoo’s Panda Cam or the surface of Mars through the Curiosity Rover.
Work from home. Work staggered hours. Work while homeschooling. Work while whatevering. We are living in a time where exceptions are becoming rules. Try new things. Schedule new things. Postpone or cancel some things. We now have the opportunity to define and redefine how we work. We can try things now that we may even keep doing.
No one thing is a guaranteed-team-magic formula, but your team will notice that you are trying. Your attempts, good nature, and flexibility boost and build team confidence and trust. And confidence and trust are what truly build teams that last well beyond quarantine.
Tara Levy has been a leader in Austin’s nonprofit community for more than two decades and helps organizations build capacity and navigate change. She is a two-time graduate of The University of Texas at Austin. Her undergraduate degree is from the Plan II Honors Program, and she followed that up by graduating from the University of Texas School of Law.
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