Your guide to remote collaboration best practices

‌‌Online collaboration tools are constantly improving, allowing team members all over the world to work together.

grok

October 01, 2021 · 9 min readCollaboration

Before the COVID-19 outbreak in 2020, only 7% of American workers were given the benefit of a flexible workplace. Now that companies have seen positive results from their remote employees, flexible workplaces are here to stay.

‌‌Online collaboration tools are constantly improving, allowing team members all over the world to work together. But an increase in remote work has also led to collaboration fatigue. This often happens when people are over-scheduled and must face back-to-back video meetings, chats, emails, and messages. Being continuously available has caused many to feel more stressed out and overwhelmed.

‌‌However, shifting to remote collaboration best practices will help you better navigate the changing business landscape. In the process, you’ll save your employees from the burnout that’s resulting from having to sit through too many meetings.

What is remote collaboration? And how do we make it work?

Thankfully, there are steps you can take to alleviate collaboration fatigue without sacrificing successful project management.

1. Define team member expectations

With people working remotely, it’s no longer possible to pop by a coworker’s desk for a quick work-related chat. Remote collaboration now fills this role. As a result, however, many employees are finding themselves bombarded with messages on a variety of platforms.

Remote collaboration can be synchronous and asynchronous. Synchronous is when multiple employees are communicating at the same time. When your employees are in a meeting or conference call, they’re speaking with one another in real time — hence, the communication is synchronous.

Asynchronous communication is when your employees are communicating at different times. Email and chats are examples of asynchronous communication. Since synchronous communication requires all employees to be present, it sometimes causes distractions. An effective way to set team member expectations is to put guidelines in place for when to use each form of communication. Communicating desired response times is also a good example.

Some people want to answer each message right away. Others might take days to answer emails and chat messages, which potentially holds up the project as team members wait for information. Both extremes can lead to a loss in productivity. Offer clear expectations about how often to respond to chats, emails, and other forms of asynchronous communication.‌

2. Schedule meetings sparingly

Project managers shouldn’t schedule meetings for every task. Effective meetings allow your project team to hold meaningful discussions and truly collaborate. When you’re scheduling a meeting, decide its desired outcome beforehand.

Will you be making important decisions, discussing plans, or delving into topics that are best addressed in real time? In these cases, it’s best to schedule a meeting. If you’re just sharing information, or if the topic could be effectively addressed asynchronously, it’s best to stick with email or the chat feature of your online collaboration tool.

3. Make your meetings more productive

Schedule productive meetings means you’re aware of which situations require synchronous communication. Your team members will know that these discussions are necessary and will produce tangible results. Make your meetings more productive with these remote collaboration best practices:

  • ‌Set an agenda

  • ‌Plan ahead

  • ‌Take notes and save them to the cloud

  • ‌Record meetings for people who can’t attend

Let’s break down what this looks like in practice.‌‌

Set an agenda. Setting an agenda — and sticking to it — ensures that all important points are discussed during the meeting. Hosting a meeting with a general topic in mind but without an agenda is less productive, because you might miss key points while facilitating.

Plan ahead. Another reason to set an agenda is that it allows you to plan. You might be discussing an issue that requires input from another department or a sub consultant. Planning ahead means creating an opportunity to invite these people to the meeting. You get to meet your objectives without having to schedule additional discussions.

‌‌Take notes and save them to the cloud. Even if the whole team is in attendance, have someone take notes. This way, if any action items come up during the meeting, you can come back to the notes and measure your progress. It’s also likely that people will miss some information during the meeting. Detailed notes let them review and refresh when they need to.

Record the meeting. For those who can’t attend, create a recording and save it to the cloud. That way, everyone on the project team can refer to the meeting when they need to. Have them ask follow up questions in a group chat on your remote collaboration platform.

4. Keep people from talking over each other

One frustrating component of remote meetings is the lag time that often accompanies each participant. As a result, it’s easy for attendees to talk over each other and cut each other off before someone has finished talking.

But virtual meetings run smoothly when they confirm to ‌remote collaboration best practices. Encourage participants to use the “raise hand” tool before talking, or give them opportunities to react to each other in the comments. The meeting facilitator can also selectively mute and unmute participants to keep the conversation flowing without overlaps.

5. Add a buffer to meetings

Lower the chances of collaboration fatigue by adding 10 minutes to the start and end of each meeting. A buffer gives employees the chance to take small breaks between meetings to refresh and prepare for the next.

If external clients pack your employees’ schedules, encourage them to be more selective about which meetings they attend. Teach them to effectively work through each agenda item to make the most out of their time. Your remote workers are less likely to feel fatigued when their meetings are more productive. Have your employees set quiet hours in which they can focus on other duties.

6. Have employees audit their equipment

Since you’re recording meetings, have everyone watch it and audit themselves. This includes you and the other managers. When watching the meeting, you might notice details that weren’t obvious during the recording.

Assess your video quality and audio. Look at your video closely — listen for distractions like background noise and audio echoes. You might see yourself moving out of the frame, or you might note some distracting background decorations. Your watercolor portrait of your dog might be special to you, but others in the meeting may end up spending more time admiring your precious pooch than paying attention to your topic.

7. Host meetings without video

Curb work fatigue by hosting some collaborative meetings without video. Collaborative tools like virtual whiteboards, presentation tools, and others facilitate a discussion without your employees having to appear on camera.

If you’re using a platform that utilizes video, host some meetings in which people are encouraged to keep their cameras turned off. Use other tools like screen sharing to guide the discussion, but take the pressure off your employees by letting them collaborate offscreen.

Some meetings revolve around solving a problem or collaborating on a specific part of the project. When you’re collaborating on a document, a sketch, a design, or another project element, allow it to take center stage in the meeting. Use a collaborative platform that lets you share the screen and allows members to make changes.

These tools lead to a truly collaborative experience that mimics what would happen in an in-person meeting. People can use tools to write or draw on a virtual whiteboard or notepad, and they can even react to each other’s suggestions in real time. Interactive tools lead to a constructive discussion since your employees can focus on the document itself rather than their video.

8. Keep your communication simple and organized

Answering multiple messages across different platforms can make your team members feel overwhelmed. When sending emails and creating tasks, be sure to include all the relevant information in the same message.

If you sent a series of emails breaking down your requests, your team might feel like they’re being micromanaged. Sending a single, detailed message lets them know you trust them. Have them follow up on any unclear instructions with a phone call or a chat message.

Most of today’s remote collaboration tools offer cloud storage. This lets people store everything related to a project in one place. Then project managers and team members can access their tasks, schedules, meeting notes, chats, and collaborative documents without spending excessive time searching through the server, email chains, and other locations.

Cloud based platforms make it easier for team members to work effectively from home. If a team member has a question, they can scroll through the chat to see if it’s already been answered, or they can post a message that reaches the whole team. Everyone can make changes to the same document at the same time, adding notes and making changes. This eliminates redundancy and ensures that any document sent to your clients is the latest.

9. Set protocols for asynchronous communication

Establish your preferences for each channel of asynchronous communication. This includes email, text messages, and chats. If you’re using cloud-based software to manage projects, have your employees post any project related messages to the associated chat. That way, they won't have to answer both chats and emails.

Use chat tools for in-depth discussions that are more complicated or would require multiple emails. Email, on the other hand, should be used for external communication with clients and for topics that need a chain for future reference. Share big documents with clients through the cloud if you can, or invite them to collaborate with your remote platform.‌

10. Help your employees feel less distracted

Since some people tend to feel the need to respond to every message as soon as it comes in, remind them that it’s okay to turn off their notifications. Rather than interrupting every task to respond to an email or chat message, inspire your remote workers to block out chunks of time during the day to respond to emails and chat messages.

With so many communication channels at their disposal, many employees will neglect their phone. But a simple call can often clear up confusion and put team members back on track. Encourage phone calls to sort out issues that warrant a quick discussion. Any topic that would involve stopping by a coworker’s desk in the office can be handled over the phone in a remote work environment.

11. Set expectations for “urgent” messages

Each project manager knows that their tasks are important, but your team members might be trying to keep up with deadlines. Sending an urgent message or task makes your coworkers feel like they must drop everything to respond.

Help your employees prioritize tasks by making better use of the urgent button. Resist the impulse to mark every email with an exclamation point. Certain tasks need to be done right away, but others can wait until later.

Sometimes an issue will arise that is truly time sensitive and needs to be handled right away. In these instances, set up a specific channel on your chosen platform. Make sure all of your employees have access in case the person in charge of the task isn’t available. When everyone can see the emergency channel, it’s easier to find someone who can help you with time-sensitive tasks.

12. Block out lunches

Sometimes it isn’t possible to take a lunch break. But being away from your desk for short periods each day can help you and your employees be more productive. Ask your team members to block out specific periods of time in which they're not focused on anything work related.‌‌

Getting up and leaving your workstation for even a few minutes helps you regroup and focus. Share tips with your remote workers on how they can spend this time. Inspire them to take regular breaks by taking them yourself. If you have a weekly activity such as a yoga class or golf lessons, make sure you share it with your team. They might be over scheduled and resistant at first, but ease them into the practice of taking breaks throughout the day.

13. Set a clear end to the workday

Since remote workers have every work tool available at their fingertips, they may be tempted to remain available at all hours. You might even send a late-night email because you don’t want the topic to slip your mind. But your employees could feel pressured to respond right away.

Give your workers a work/life balance by respecting their personal time. Set a hard end time after which meetings can’t be scheduled in each time zone. If your employees work across the country, the cut off may differ. You could make it a policy that meetings won’t be scheduled after 6 PM in each employee’s time zone.‌

If you have employees working on both the east and west coasts, it could be trickier for them to collaborate with a set deadline. Develop a habit of scheduling meetings during shared business hours rather than at the beginning or end of someone's work day.

14. Ask your employees to shut down equipment

Remote employees don’t have to shut everything down at the end of the day — leaving computers in sleep mode makes morning logins faster, after all. But the physical act of shutting down equipment at the end of the day can help employees unwind and relax after work.

If your company offers work phones, have your remote workers turn them off at the end of the day. It’s important that your employees aren’t accessible during their personal time. Don’t mix personal and work email on the same company phone. Employees might not take the time to disconnect or even be able to.‌‌

15. Encourage employees to take their vacation days

Remote work has made it difficult for some employees to maintain a satisfactory work/life balance. A 2020 survey conducted by IPX showed that 92% of Americans canceled their vacation plans that year due to the pandemic. But employees still need breaks. Otherwise, they run the risk of burnout.

‌Working from home makes it harder to separate work life and home life. Although remote employees have shown that they can be highly productive without being in the office, you shouldn’t encourage them to work from home in lieu of taking time off.

The World Health Organization reported that working for 55 hours a week increases your risk of stroke by 35%. Avoid this by fostering a work environment in which vacation days are encouraged. Remind your employees that they have access to paid time off and tell them to take it. Make vacation time more fun by setting up a channel where people can post vacation photos, stories, or tips on how to relax in the middle of the day.

Final Thoughts

While remote work comes with its benefits, it also increases the risk of burnout. Using remote collaboration best practices will help you improve productivity. And when your employees know how to best engage in remote collaboration — synchronous and asynchronous — they’ll manage their time more effectively and get the most out of every video meeting.

It might take some time to implement these best practices through cultural changes, but it’s possible. Create a clear set of guidelines and make them accessible for everyone in your company. Once the changes have been implemented, you'll likely notice that your team is running more smoothly and people have more motivation. Getting organized and encouraging a better work/life balance for your remote staff will help them perform their jobs with ease, and you’ll be doing your part against collaboration fatigue.

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