By now, many of us have figured out how to be productive while working from home. The “right” environment is a matter of personal preference - whether that means triple monitors and noise cancelling headphones, or simply your favorite mug and slippers. When you are in your bubble and in the zone, working from home can feel easy. But then you get on your first Zoom meeting of the day, and reality quickly bursts your WFH bubble.
Virtual collaboration can be the hardest aspect of remote working. Varying work styles, mismatched expectations, bad technology, or even bad manners can stand in the way of effective collaboration and make the prospect of long-term remote work feel daunting. You can invest all you want in your own personal work space, but if your job depends on your ability to work with a team, you’ll have to also invest in better virtual collaboration practices.
Collaboration best practices for remote work
Read on to learn some of the worst habits that hinder virtual collaboration and get tips for how to be a better teammate and leader while working from home.
[ Want to boost your energy and reduce stress? Read also: Remote work exhaustion: 13 tips to reduce fatigue. ]
1. Set clear expectations
“We are not in the same physical locations, so we no longer see each other in the hallways or cafeteria. Finding common ground and the right time to connect is key,” says Aníbal Abarca, CTO of Wizeline. “Respect the time that each person needs based on their professional responsibilities and personal needs. Investing time and effort into enabling asynchronous communication across teams and individuals is critical. Setting clear expectations around expected response turnaround helps employees set boundaries between work and personal responsibilities.”
“Finally, being remote shouldn’t mean being absent,” he says. “This is particularly important and also very difficult. After so many hours in Zoom meetings, it gets difficult to concentrate and not get distracted in checking email and other tasks. Sometimes people become disengaged and prefer not to turn on their video. Defining certain guidelines and etiquette is helpful to improve productivity and collaboration.”
[ How do your team meetings stack up? Read also: Zoom tips: 6 ways to make meetings better. ]
2. Keep it simple
“Effectiveness in remote communication is directly linked to simplicity, i.e. the ability to use as few tools as possible to get all the information one needs,” says Molood Ceccarelli, remote work strategist and founder of Remote Forever. “People tend to think if their colleague needs more information, they can always get in touch and ask or call for a meeting to talk about it. For example, picture a front-end developer who opens a task item that reads ‘button color change’ with no additional information. This developer would have to go to a chat tool to ask his/her colleagues to describe the issue only to find out that more information is actually in an email from the customer support team.”
“Instead, communicate asynchronously and effectively,” she says. “When you convey a message to others in any tool, gather your thoughts and deliver all the information instead of sending it to them in bits and pieces scattered in various channels. Spend a few minutes to collect the pieces of information, links and images and place them all in one place. This empowers others to spend less time looking for data and saves valuable time and be more productive.”
3. Stop talking over people
“I think the worst habit is when people speak over each other,” says Shayne Sherman, CEO of Techloris. “In most cases, it is understandable because of latency issues and poor connectivity, but I think that this is something people need to account for. If there is one person primarily leading the meeting, it may be wise for others to type something in the chat that they wish to speak. Use the ‘raised hand’ feature or a simple emoji in the chat box to let the leader know who wants to speak. Virtual meetings could go much more smoothly if everyone adopted this best practice.”
[ Get exercises and approaches that make disparate teams stronger. Read the digital transformation ebook: Transformation Takes Practice. ]
4. Minimize distractions
“Switch off notifications. It has to start there. Without it your efficacy is at the mercy of chaos,” says Erdin Beshimov, senior director of MIT Open Learning. “Have more one-on-one phone calls. Not Zoom calls, but phone calls, which is a very powerful tool, especially when combined with a walk. It unifies concentration and collaboration. We collaborate through interaction, but also when we listen, think, and concentrate. A phone call can give you both. I bet many of modern society’s innovations were conceived over a phone call.”
“If you’re going to concentrate, do it and respect this space,” he says. “Try the pomodoro technique: assign yourself specific time periods to fully concentrate – say, 30 minutes or an hour. Your mind knows that a break will come and gives itself ‘permission’ to channel all of its energy to a task. If you’re collaborating, give it your all too – no distractions. For example, if you’re on a Zoom call, keep your camera on and your phone away. Be fully in it. Bonus: it will make your meetings shorter too.”
5. Kill the background noise
“Background noise is a major issue. Most of us remember to keep our mics muted, but it can slip our minds from time to time,” says Ethan Taub, CEO of Goalry. “Look for a service that can detect and only activate the mic when the volume is above a certain level, which can be adjusted by you. This way the mic will only activate when it detects your voice. Of course, the best option is to find a quiet space or, if you have your own office, soundproof your walls.”
Let's explore five more tips to try: