Remote work: Teamwork at a distance

This is Part Four of our series on how we work remotely, adapted and abridged from our full guide – Welcome to the World of Tomorrow! If you’d like to learn more, click the link to download the whole thing!

Working remotely changes how you relate to and work with your colleagues. This starts at the very beginning with hiring, but carries through to every day we spend working as a team. Here are some of the most important parts of remote teamwork.

Exercises in Team-Building

Transforming your culture to be compatible with remote work is often difficult. The success of our culture starts with hiring adults who won’t treat working from home like a vacation. Many people have the necessary independence and autonomy to do this, but aren’t always given a chance to build those skills in a more traditional work environment.

We use our hiring process in part to test for this mindset. At Alley, we leverage Slack to create a simulacrum of the Alley experience for a potential hire—the final interview is in a Slack channel, replacing the more traditional final in-person interview. It’s an intense yet fun experience that mirrors how we work.

We always say Alley is a tough first job because there isn’t a lot in most college experiences that prepare people for this kind of remote environment and remote teamwork. We want to make sure our team members are truly ready for it. Above all, hire adults. Provide them with some structure, and trust them to self-motivate.

On the flip side of independence, there’s also the challenge of work-life balance. The tendency to be “always on” is not exclusive to remote culture, but it’s often harder to resist when you’re remote – for example if you hear that Slack ping coming from your laptop in the other room. This makes it essential to be intentional about how you plan your days. Creating separation between work and home is difficult but necessary since, for many remote workers, work and home are the same place. You should foster boundaries, whether physical (such as keeping your laptop in your office and closing the door) or mental (meditating or “commuting” before and after work), and create conditions for team members to work flexibly but with transparency and clarity.

If you’re having trouble balancing this, all is not lost! You might want to try a coworking space, as many of us do. This provides a structure to your workday, builds your local community network, and can have other benefits as well (free coffee, anyone?). Separating the spheres of work and home is much harder when you’re working remotely—so you have to be intentional about your approach and choices.

Maintaining Mindfulness

As we discussed in the previous section, working too much can be just as much of an issue as working too little. It’s far too easy to eat less, neglect human needs, or forget to (mindfully) breathe. We all deal with these challenges differently, but here are some solutions we’ve found. These are some ways to keep work intentional, effective, and fun.

  • If you don’t deliberately plan for it, it’s easy to forget to take breaks. Try scheduling breaks with calendar events, using timers, or installing break-reminder apps like Time Out to keep yourself happy, healthy, and fed.
  • Know where you find your energy. Even the introverts among us aren’t automatically used to being alone in a room for long periods of time. And while we may not technically be entirely alone all that time, with frequent video chats and Slack, the solitude can still start to add up. Try working from coworking spaces, cafés, or other places where you can experience some human interaction. Just be conscious of when you’ll have to take video calls because what’s invigorating for you might be distracting for those on the other end of the conversation.
  • We save time by not commuting. But that time doesn’t always have to be put straight to work—make sure you balance work time with time spent on becoming a more well-rounded human. Use some of the time you save to take opportunities for professional development that pull you out of your routine and comfort zone.

Remote Teamwork

We prioritize accountability and radical candor at Alley, and we believe these are important values for remote organizations. However, without an environment of trust, care, and safety, practices that support these values can feel alienating and arbitrary to team members.

Radical candor asks that we challenge ourselves and others to be honest about issues and difficulties because we care deeply about the outcome. Rather than just going heads-down on your own work, taking the time to provide feedback on others’ work and explain issues with care only strengthens your team. It may take more time upfront to maintain caring, candid relationships, but it saves time in the long run and keeps morale high.

Building these relationships can easily reap benefits outside of the remote teamwork environment. When our COO Bridget McNulty was at a Christmas celebration a few years back, her cousin challenged her to solve a brainteaser. She called up the Alley hive mind (via Slack), and we figured out the answer in 5 minutes flat. That’s the power of a remote team: Those connections you build at work extend across thousands of miles, even during the holidays, to have each other’s backs.

An image of a piece of paper with NEA$R on one line, N$EAR below it, and NE$AR on a final line

One of Alley’s core values is transparency, and that even goes for letting others know how you work best and learning from how others plan their days. Here at Alley, there’s almost always someone working with colleagues in other countries and time zones halfway around the world. So even if you’re physically alone in your office, you’re rarely by yourself, and you can almost always sign into Slack and ask a question or start a conversation.

Getting Organized

At an organizational level, many systems can be put in place that naturally adapt to a remote environment. As you’ve seen, communication and transparency are the keys to setting up these systems—qualities that are most difficult to foster in a remote company.

You should establish programs to help your team members to learn and grow into remote teamwork. At Alley, every team member has a regular meeting with a coach who serves as their mentor, with a budget set aside for their professional development, as well as the opportunity to join weekly Alley Learn Stuff meetings and communities of practice to share information and techniques.

Finally, make serendipity deliberate. You can’t run into someone in the hallway or ask someone you haven’t worked with to physically go out for coffee or a drink. Alley uses a Slack extension called Donut to set up meetings every couple of weeks between random employees who join our “donut buddies” channel. This is just one of the community channels we’ve created in Slack, with subjects ranging from cute animals and pets to gaming, sports, photography, and ranch dressing.

Bottom line, it’s important to proactively prevent people from becoming siloed. Teams can too easily go heads-down on their work and never talk to others except when necessary. Don’t force cross-team communication, but provide opportunities for remote teamwork to happen naturally by setting up processes that make it easy.

How about you? What questions do you have about the changes you’d have to make as a remote worker or remote organization? Let us know on Twitter!