4 keys to Successfully Launching a Team Remotely
In the past few months, we’ve all had to make adjustments to the way we live and work. But as we head out of crisis mode and into summer, we need to figure out how to move beyond maintenance and into innovation. But launching a team remotely is a fundamentally different challenge from shifting to remote work during an emergency. As business and systems analyst Kim Shifley observed,
“Beginning a whole new project with a whole new team, building that chemistry and communication flow is much more difficult than simply adjusting to remote work with a team and projects already in place.”
So what are some things you can do from the beginning of a project to mitigate the challenges of being remote? Here are four strategies our team found helpful.
For a team to work efficiently, it’s important for each member to get the information they need, to understand how their work fits into the larger project, and to feel like they’re in the loop. While a lot of this communication happens naturally in a face-to-face work environment, conveying even basic messages can be a herculean task for a remote team.
Although wrangling new technology may seem like just another hurdle of working remotely, our team lead, Sophia, said she’s been trying to use technology to “organize and navigate this new very virtual space.” In particular, our team has used Slack as a central hub. After two days of awkward communication via a combination of email, text, and group calls, our developer Jordan suggested that we pick one tool as an “epicenter for communication.”
Slack has been great for our team because it manages to find the sweet spot between text and email. While text messages are too informal and can be overwhelming in large quantities, emails feel too formal for brief questions and can take a long time to get a response; Slack provides an environment that’s easy to chat in and yet doesn’t get mixed in with non-work conversations.
Prioritizing communication can also help individuals remember that they’re part of a team. When we don’t have the physical reminder of our teammates’ presence, it’s all the more important that we reach out to each other.
One of our senior developers, Nathan, admitted that web searches had become his go-to resource for problem solving. Last summer, he found it helpful to look at other developer’s screens or collaborate on whiteboard diagrams. This summer, he said, “There’s still lots of cooperation, but we’re definitely having to place more emphasis on asking questions and reaching out to people who might know better and tapping into those resources” of our shared knowledge.
Ask Questions Early On
People adjust to change at different rates, and it’s important to acknowledge the uncertainty that comes with launching a new project. Encouraging people to ask questions helps everyone get on the same page and reminds them that an important part of team identity comes from those initial conversations and negotiations. A healthy team is open to questions, giving its members permission to feel confused occasionally and opportunities for them to figure out how they best contribute.
James, one of our senior developers, remembered that his first few weeks at the CATLab were “a little confusing and a little hectic.” Now that he can look back on that experience, he said, “I think it kind of needed to happen that way”: His initial self-doubt prompted him to put in more effort to learn what he needed to.
As we recapped our first day as a team, Hannah Fisk, a recent Westmont grad and one of the developers who’s been with us the longest, spoke up to encourage the new developers. The thing she emphasized and praised them for was the quality of questions they were asking.
A less obvious benefit to asking questions is that it can actually facilitate team bonding. James says that as he’s transitioned from seeking help to being a resource for others, he’s enjoyed getting to know the other developers through the kinds of questions they ask. He loves learning how other people function, saying, “I feel like I get to know them a little bit more by their specific way of programming or their specific way of thinking—and that’s fascinating to me.”
Establish a Common Focus
Not only does a team need the technology and the culture necessary for good communication; a team also needs a common focus to keep everyone centered. A team works best when everyone’s on the same page, both in terms of schedule and in terms of goals. This unity and focus doesn’t happen by accident—it requires diligent planning—but the benefits it brings are worth the effort.
Senior developer Nathan shared that something that made his transition into summer work “seamless” was going straight from classes to the CATLab: “Once I’m in my rhythm,” he said, “it’s pretty easy to continue on with it.” Having a shared schedule helps keep us on track. Even though we’re working from different locations and different time zones, it’s helpful to have a sense of who’s doing what when. We have a lot of individual work time, but the schedules give us a general picture of what’s happening each day. We also open and close our days with brief group calls, and the clear start and end times help us get into the brainspace of working.
It’s similarly important to make sure that shared resources are well organized. Just like having a center for communication, having easy-to-navigate shared drives or code depositories is important to keeping a team running well. Jordan said she appreciated “not having to fish around” every time she had to go back and find something.
Keep in mind, though, that a common focus doesn’t mean that everyone needs to know absolutely everything. Now that he’s in his second year at the CATLab, James said he was grateful for the extent to which this summer had been thought out and organized. A lot of last summer, he said, had been about feeling out what worked and what didn’t, especially in terms of training. While last summer, each intern was given an overview of the whole of Salesforce, James said it was most helpful to learn the specific functionality of what he was working on. This summer, training is a lot more focused, and, according to James, it’s “spot-on.”
Break Up the Intensity of Getting Started
Even with the growing body of literature on “Zoom fatigue” since the start of this pandemic, we still might be tempted to just power through those first few days of getting set up. While the initial transition will be challenging no matter what we do, we can make use of a variety of activities to meet our goals. Is your agenda packed with lots of group meetings? Try giving people space for individual reflection. Lots of logistics and left-brain work? Try assigning a creative task. Lots of results-driven break-out sessions? Try offering a free-form half hour—bonus points for encouraging people to do work away from their computers!
All of our developers agreed that having constant calls and meetings on the computer can be draining and overwhelming, and sometimes they aren’t even that helpful. James, for instance, found that his team needed to reduce the number of group calls and rely more on occasional check-ins in order to get their work done efficiently.
Nathan noted that it’s important to take breaks, not only so that you don’t get overwhelmed, but to “keep yourself grounded with other things.” Several of our developers emphasized the importance of finding things to do that don’t involve technology—going outside, reading a book, playing an instrument, or talking to a roommate. Good breaks are vital for working well in general, but they’re especially important during the intensity of launching a new project.
In short, there are a lot of challenges that come with getting a new team up and running—and those challenges can be exacerbated by a remote environment unless your team takes clear steps to meet them. In the end, when you encourage people to communicate, ask questions, pursue a common goal, and take breaks, your team will be strong and ready for success.
“I don’t think that the remoteness, per se, has had too much of a negative impact on bonding with each other. We all have a similar, if not the same, goal in mind: We’re contributing to something bigger than us. I think that allows for the freedom to learn from each other, and I think that’s been a bigger bonding experience.”
Looking for more tips on managing a successful student team? Get our updates on social media