Remote work: 3 ways to supercharge your team in 2021

The New Year brings a new opportunity to energize your team members. Consider these creative tactics to boost creativity, collaboration, and engagement in the virtual workplace
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If you think team building inevitably involves trust falls, zip lines, escape rooms, or paintball, it’s time to let go of that notion. These types of activities probably won’t be happening anytime soon, and some of the introverts on your team (like me) might not enjoy them anyway.

The good news is you likely already have technology tools that can help nurture a culture of transparency, collaboration, and engagement. Here are a few novel ideas I picked up over the past year to help supercharge your team in 2021.

[ How do your team meetings stack up? Read also:  Zoom tips: 6 ways to make meetings better. ]

1. Bring back the breakroom

At some point in 2020, you may have set up online chat rooms for your team members to share what’s on their minds. At  Red Hat, our chat rooms have proliferated – some are strictly organizational, some celebrate professional and personal successes, and others are places to enjoy things like pet photos when people need a break. (Turns out puppy photos are perfect for recharging our batteries and staying mindful of why we do what we do.)

In 2021, extend the virtual breakroom to your video meetings by showing up a few minutes early when you can. This allows everyone to share their news beyond the scope of the meeting, which can spark ideas that might otherwise only happen face-to-face.

[ Are you over-communicating and not engaging? Read our related story: Remote leadership: 9 ways your style may backfire. ]

Also, consider reducing hour-long meetings to 45 minutes to leave time for additional conversation. Scheduling systems like Google Calendar let you do “speedy meetings” that change hour-long meetings to 50 minutes, but people often blow past those 50 minutes, knowing it’s really an hour-long meeting. I’ve found that 45 minutes is the sweet spot – attendees are more likely to stop on time and look forward to getting the extra 15 minutes back. At that point, people can leave if they prefer, and those who want to stay longer and chat can do so without rushing to their next meeting.

2. Change your background to reflect the mood

Like most of us in 2020, you likely held countless video meetings from the exact same location in your home workspace. But a literal change of scenery could boost your approachability and make your meetings more memorable.

In 2021, consider changing your background based on the type of environment you want to project. For formal meetings, a tidy, professional-looking home office is probably best. But for more casual gatherings, consider adapting your setting to reflect a warmer, more personal tone.

Consider changing your background based on the type of environment you want to project.

I observed this first-hand when my colleague Nathan Jones held a “fireside chat” with his large team in front of his home fireplace. Nathan literally created a warm environment that made him appear more approachable, which in turn relaxed the audience and increased their engagement.

If you decide to shake up your setting, remember to be sensitive to your team members. The turbulence and uncertainty of 2020 may have left some of them struggling, and even if you are fortunate enough to be connecting from a ski chalet or a beach resort, those images might not portray the sort of warm inclusiveness you’re going for. Instead, consider an unassuming, inviting setting such as your living room or library.

3. Tap the power of the virtual sticky note

In 2020, the traditional approach to team brainstorming – with sticky notes and a whiteboard – was not an option. Unfortunately, brainstorming via video calls too often leads to circular conversations and limited engagement. In addition, in virtual meetings (as in physical ones), the more assertive team members tend to overshadow the introverts, potentially leaving a lot of great ideas off the table.

In 2021, commit to trying virtual sticky notes. Your company may already own these tools as part of your collaboration suite – for example, Jamboard is included in Google Workspace, and Microsoft Whiteboard is included in Teams. Dedicated tools such as Mural and Miro are also available. Any of these enable teams around the world to collaborate and brainstorm in real time.

If you’re new to these technologies, I recommend creating a multi-sheet template with prompts for people to build on. You might also want to attach the shared whiteboard to the meeting invitation so participants can prepare and even get started prior to the meeting.

Keep in mind that virtual sticky notes and whiteboarding apps aren’t limited to just brainstorming – try using exercises from the Open Practice Library to further engage your team members.

The near-overnight shift to remote work in 2020 forced many of us to adjust quickly and make the best of a difficult situation. The New Year brings an opportunity to be more thoughtful and work toward creating a remote work environment where everyone can thrive. What will your teams be changing up in the year ahead?

[ Get exercises and approaches that make disparate teams stronger. Read the digital transformation ebook: Transformation Takes Practice. ]

David Egts
David Egts is MuleSoft's first-ever Public Sector field CTO. He is the executive-level connective tissue between MuleSoft and top public sector decision makers and influencers globally.