6 Keys to Effectively Engaging Remote Teamwork

6 Keys to Effectively Engaging Remote Teamwork


I find it hard to remember that I’m speaking to an audience of people, when I’m on the internet. Do you? Teamwork and communication over the computer, even in a traditional office setting, has always felt isolating to me. Letters and emoticons on a screen just don’t give me the same sense of emotional connection to my friend or coworker. I find that growing and maintaining that trust relationship is difficult, with these digital constraints

Yes, even with the new “Emoji 2” emoticons recently released, that dancing squirrel or endlessly looping cyan-and-pink flower emoticon doesn’t usually make me feel comfortable expressing anything other than good-natured humor, or maybe irony! And do you ever have that uncomfortable sense, when someone sends you the dancing-squirrel emoticon back, that you don’t understand or trust the other person much more than you did before? And if you don’t grow in your trust and appreciation for others over the ‘net, how can your team as a group ever become more effective

This is the real challenge of effective remote teamwork – to constantly re-humanize our interactions. Good software has enabled us to rapidly disseminate and organize large amounts of data throughout a dispersed, remote team. DropBox, cloud services, Trello, screen-sharing software, the host of Google services – these all make the information dissemination task of remote teams ridiculously easy.

What remains hard though is that sense of personal connection! The awareness that your teammates, and by extension, your clients, are:

  • People with needs
  • People with feelings
  • People that have “bad hair days”
  • People that have interesting motivations
  • People with their own unique history and individual preferences

The bottom line is that they ARE people…Think for a second and ponder these 2 questions:

  1. Without a growing awareness of and appreciation for what makes your teammates and clients unique, do you really have an effective team?
  2. And if you don’t have a team which exudes empathy, personality and confidence, how confident will your clients feel in your services?

Let’s look at a few keys to building that more effective remote team.

Be a real person

There are two people involved in every online interaction, and if you set an example for personality, openness and honesty, it is in the human nature of your teammate or client to reciprocate. Only anti-social people respond negatively if you make an effort to be proactively honest. Are you just feeling terrific today, for some odd or interesting reason? Find a way to mention that. Are you experiencing some challenges? Without losing your positivity, find a way to admit that. That kind of open admission of weakness is not only humanizing, it makes a gracious place for your teammate to be vulnerable with you, perhaps at another time. Honesty about weakness has the potential to come off as negative, but done right, it is incredibly powerful in relationships, including those over the web. The truss business demands much give-and-take for successful collaborations, and if you can go first and be willing to admit mistakes cheerfully, acknowledge blind spots, and show an interest in learning and growing through your experiences, you will help others relax and be human along with you. And, maybe even enjoy the interaction more!

Remember personal details and tidbits about others

People share more with each other than they realize, and in the narrow, constricting communication platform that is the internet, it becomes important to pay attention to what your teammates and clients share about themselves. Do your best to remember their spouse’s name, how many children they have, what they like to do in their spare time, what their plans were for the holidays. Follow up. Make it a habit to start your emails with the business question at hand, but to close the email with a personal note that ties back to your last interaction. Did they say they were going to Myrtle Beach? When you email them about some business concern a few weeks later, ask how the beach was. This kind of attentiveness to details is the currency of any relationship, but goes a particularly long way with remote teams, where the focus can easily get narrowed to a blinding obsession with business.

Match, don’t mimic, the communication style of others

It’s long been said that effective negotiators unconsciously mirror the body language, speech patterns and mannerisms of their counterparts, as an aid to effective communication. The challenge in a remote teamwork environment is to match, without exactly imitating, the ‘digital mannerisms’ of your friend, not in a pandering or overt way, but in a conscious effort to communicate clearly and comfortably with them in a style that feels natural to them. For example: I’m a crusty Northern New Englander, the Canadian border was within spitting distance of my home, and when I moved to the South I got a crash course in how not to alienate my new neighbors with my Yankee mannerisms! It was a delicate and conscious effort on my part to match the southern style of communicating, using stories, comfortable pauses, reassurance and a slower pace, to help others feel comfortable with me – without insulting anyone and being so obvious as to pretend to have a southern accent! Remote teams are often as disparate and widespread as my move across the Mason-Dixon line, and to the extent that you can discern the idiosyncrasies of your teammate’s online communication style, consider how you can modify or streamline your own communication style, to more seamlessly integrate with his or hers.

Pay attention to your written hygiene

We all practice physical hygiene, and it makes interacting socially more enjoyable. In the limited, constricting online interactions of a remote team, it pays to be extremely punctilious about your tone, voice, vocabulary, phrasing, idioms, word structure, grammar etc. Your written word is often the only way your teammate or client experiences you as a person! How do you get a feel for who I am, except through my writing style in this article? So view your written communication as a tiny window through which all others are forced to view you, and let the seriousness of that thought inform your writing and stand as an encouragement to dutifully monitor how you come across in text form. The importance of expressing yourself clearly, compassionately and succinctly cannot be overemphasized. The written word is powerful, and when it is the main lifeline of your communication, you must commit yourself to being a conscious guardian and caretaker of that self-presentation to your team and the world in your writing.

Remember that in online interactions, every single encounter will either build up or tear down the other person

Be encouraging. Be encouraging! This is not the same as maintaining a buoyant outlook, or using exclamation points often. Anticipate the anxieties of others, and be the first to speak kindness to them. Notice when other people make an effort toward the group goal, and be sure to mention it. Make a decision to proofread every email for unnecessarily negative or critical-sounding phrases, and either replace them with value-neutral statements, rephrase the sentence to focus on a positive outcome, or having realized that you have come upon an actual problem, find a way to address the issue in an organized, structured, helpful way. Decide to be that person who is always adding tiny amounts of encouragement to the system, not the one who is somehow always draining the team’s tank of enthusiasm.

Lastly, do the work

Steven Pressfield wrote a great, extremely short book entitled Do the Work. The book’s potent and serious premise is entirely encapsulated in the title – there are less than 100 pages. It’s an important book to read and re-read, and he encourages in the reader a critical focus area in every enterprise – do the work! Meet your deadlines. Proactively inform others when you get behind, and find ways to make it up. Start early. Stay away from news sites. Chat less, encourage more. Make a plan, organize your time. Don’t pretend that multi-tasking works, or even exists – it doesn’t. Sit down, take a deep breath, smile, thank G-d for the chance to contribute to your team, and Do the Work.

Jonathon Landell – Project Manager

Gould Design, Inc.