The last few weeks have been tough for all of us. Remote work has quickly became the new normal, and we’ve had to adjust to virtual team meetings; lack of social contact; and missing out on the creative spark that comes from spontaneous conversations with co-workers. Employers who frowned upon working from home were forced to embrace it, and chances are that when we emerge from the COVID-19 crisis, remote work will be one of the things that sticks around.
As someone who built a remote startup team long before the crisis hit, I know how hard it can be to adjust to the fully remote work environment. Make no mistake: I believe that in-person interactions often help us bond faster, create a strong culture and spark creativity through random encounters and exchanges of ideas. In fact, my favorite mode of communication is face-to-face, preferably with a coffee in my hand. However, life circumstances prevented our team members from being physically together. Very soon after starting the company, my co-founder and I had to start working from opposite ends of the United States. In addition, our first employee was (and still is) based in Ghana, meaning that we had to adjust to working across multiple time zones.
Running a remote team is certainly not easy, especially if you have to transition from an environment where you see your teammates to virtual interactions. Luckily, there are ways to make remote work feel just as easy and natural as office work. It does take time, but with enough determination, you can make it happen. Here’s how we did it:
When Richard and I started EllisX, we knew that we wanted to create a culture based on transparency and collaboration. To foster such an environment, it is essential to communicate in an open and honest way with all the team members. It’s important to remember that communication is a two-way street, and to share information in a way that leaves little to no room for ambiguity. In a remote team, this becomes even more crucial. It is extremely important to ensure that everyone is on the same page when there are less opportunities for interaction. If even one person is not crystal clear on the goals and objectives, it can slow down the entire team. That’s why you should encourage people to ask questions at any point in time, and share information as openly as you can.
2. Prioritize culture
Preserving culture can be difficult when you go virtual. A lot of small rituals will go away because they’re way harder to execute. However, culture is way more than free lunches or ping pong tables. Fundamentally, culture is about who you are as an organization. When you are working remotely, it is absolutely key that you focus on perpetuating the culture. For us, this meant establishing trust first and foremost. It took a long time and a lot of encouragement for our team members to start giving us straight and honest feedback, but once it happened, we knew our team trusted us. From this point on, it became a lot easier to foster the culture we envisioned, and we’re been proud to see that our team lives and breathes the core values of EllisX every day.
3. Get to know your team
Many of our working relationships are not very human. We know where the person used to work before, what their skill set is and what role they currently hold. When we have a shared workplace, casual interactions will likely help us learn more about them: if they have kids, where they’re from, etc. In a remote team, we don’t have the luxury of the casual chit chat by the coffee machine and need to be deliberate about getting to know our team members. The good news is that if you put in the effort of scheduling some casual one-on-one time, people will appreciate it and will share more about themselves. This is a great opportunity to learn what makes them tick, how they spend their free time, and what their life goals are. Nobody likes to feel like a cog in a machine. Putting genuine effort into getting to know your team will help strengthen your relationships, and allow you to match different types of work to the people whose personalities and goals are best suited for it.
4. Show appreciation
When you run a remote team, it can be hard to show people how much you value them. Of course, you can always Slack them a thank you message with a smiley face emoji or express gratitude during a phone/video call, but, as always, actions speak louder than words. While there are fewer things you can do as a remote team, here’s where you can get creative. For example, we always welcome new team members with a LinkedIn post about them joining EllisX, and have a tradition of sending greeting cards and boxes of candy to employees in the last week of December. Small gestures like these can really go a long way, and make people feel valued and appreciated.