I’ve worked remotely for 15 years, and still often find things I can do better when it comes to remote collaboration. We wrote about remote in a previous post, and after great reception, today I’ll expand on the 7 most important areas to make you a better remote collaborator:

  1. Getting yourself to your right place
  2. Building strong remote relationships
  3. Focusing on your lane, identifying your fit
  4. Getting your point across with different mediums
  5. Increasing your frequency in output
  6. Creating great meetings, using rituals
  7. Following up and closing out

1. Getting yourself to your right place

In remote work, you can’t go to the office and suddenly be immersed in the energy, camaraderie and mood of everyone around you. In that sense, it’s like you’re working by yourself. So it’s up to you to manage your state of mind, perspectives and feelings.

This can be trickier than it sounds. As we know now, feelings tend to be some of the most difficult parts for us humans to work with. So how do you consistently create a feeling of excitement for work, all by yourself?

Here’s how I tend to start my mornings:

  • Some form of exercise. Swimming is best for me: doesn’t take a lot of time, really refreshing, and a nice, all-around workout. An early morning walk is also nice.
  • Hugging and social interaction. We like hugging in my family and are teaching the kids that long, cuddly-hugs are pretty epic. This always sets me in the right mood. I also like dropping off my kids at school and then hang out and catch up with other parents right after. Some kind of social interaction is critical for a good day.
  • Quick meditation. I like a simple method called The Six Heart Virtues, where you just sit down and focus on one aspect of love at a time: appreciation, compassion, forgiveness, humility, understanding and valor. I close my eyes and think about each of those aspects for anything between a breath and a minute. It’s usually appreciation that hits me the hardest (for being able to work from where I work and do what I do with the people I love, etc.)
  • Writing. I keep a journal of insights, perspectives and meditations, and prefer to spend at least 10-15 minutes writing each morning.

After this, I’m usually ready for a day of remote work, and I’ll feel like I’m in the zone!

2. Building strong remote relationships

Great remote collaboration is dependent upon great underlying personal relationships. This remains the hardest piece for me, specifically because some people are in different timezones than I am (+9 hours).

Here’s what I’ve learned works best:

  • In-person hangout time at retreat/meetups is a must. If your remote team does not already meet regularly a few times a year, consider switching to one that does. While you can build relationships remotely, there are very few things that compensate for in-person quality time.
  • Keep a running email thread with colleagues, as a place to discuss longer-form relationship and collaboration items. Slack’s Direct Message is good for pings, but not enough for actual relationship building.
  • Regular remote hangouts with colleagues, and not always in a structured 1:1 format with an agenda, etc, as that can get pretty dry. Instead, see if you can also find other ways of hanging out or working together more casually: like brainstorming together, pairing on some work, sharing recent lessons learned, playing games together, taking turns to teach one another new skills, etc. We play games in VR for this purpose and it’s one of my favorites by far.
  • Praise and encourage often. Some people seem afraid of praising colleagues publicly, because they don’t want to suck up to others. But with remote having fewer touch points and feedback items, praise is an important tool to encourage and reward the right behavior socially. I don’t mean financial reward, but you want to let others around you know when they’ve done something good, so double, triple, maybe even quadruple your praise when building relationships remotely. And hopefully they’ll do the same.
  • Be vulnerable. See your colleagues as mentors and teachers, who only get a chance to get to know you and teach you something if you choose to open up first.
  • Call others often. Don’t just sit and wait for the next scheduled meeting (which may happen once a week), instead go out for a walk and call your colleagues! Perhaps you can have a remote walk date together, and learn from one another.

So all in all, it’s about owning the fact that you’re in a remote relationship and as all remote daters know, you need to go out of your way to make it work. And those are some of the many ways of doing it.

Messing around with Zoom’s “you’re in space” feature.
(This was pre-Theranos, please forgive the Turtleneck…)

3. Focusing on your lane, providing your expertise

A challenging part of remote is having constant access to almost everything that’s going on in the company. Being someone who likes many different functions at work, I really need to focus myself on the work I’m doing at the moment. Because I’ll always see opportunities.

I’ve concluded that there will always be more impactful things I can do at any given time, but if I never finish what I’m currently doing, it doesn’t matter. So owning my focus is key.

I try to keep a list of 3-5 current priorities that I’m working on, and tend to update this weekly. I’ve stopped being super rigid about which project I should finish at what date (instead I’m practicing being joy-driven), but I do try to be disciplined about staying within that list of projects and not straying too much.

4. Getting your point across using different mediums

There’s a lot you can do in addition to just writing text and being a part of video meetings.

I’d recommend you to:

  • Learn to use Figma to express concepts visually
  • Start using Whimsical.co, a great tool for diagramming/flow charts — useful when explaining your thinking
  • Share or screenshot your screen often when explaining things (like UseLoom.com)
  • Get an iPad with a pencil and use a shared whiteboard during meetings (like Scribbletogether).
  • Master the internal collaboration tools to the point where it’s really easy for you to link to a specific document. Whether you’re referring to information in an internal wiki, a todo-list system/Kanban board, email threads, whatever it is… make sure you can find it quickly, and link others to it.
  • Learn some tool for creating graphs and visualizing data somehow. Keynote, or maybe even Excel, should do. People love charts!

Generally, the point about learning to express things visually for me has been huge. The ability to mock up product concepts in Figma, Sketch or Photoshop can replace millions of words in an essay. (And don’t say “I am not a designer”, I wasn’t either when I started. These days, the tools give you a lot of help!)

Something I quickly drew on the iPad recently, to share an idea I had. Doesn’t have to be pretty to get the point across.

5. Increasing your frequency in output

In an office, silence is rare.

With remote, silence is the default. And that’s not good at all.

The responsibility is on you to be proactive in communication and, I think, to default to sharing your thoughts. Don’t be afraid of oversharing, because filtering is relatively easy for other remote people. They can just mute you, ignore your threads and emails, etc. The choice is theirs. This is a flexibility that remote offers everyone.

But if you’re silent, you’re not giving them that choice. They can’t tap into you and help you and guide you and work with you. If you’re silent, you won’t learn as much because you won’t get feedback on your actions as much.

So decide to be fully you, even remotely. Share more than what comes naturally. Post random pics of life as you’re going through stuff. Share your frustrations.

Like last Monday, when I felt down for something that had happened during the weekend. I shared this photo with a simple caption:

“I needed some support emotionally today. Schniffy to the rescue. He’s pretty good at video editing.”

Colleagues quickly got in touch:

I ended up having coffee with one colleague who’s in the same city, and long, great phone calls with two other ones. My post really wasn’t meant as an indirect way of saying “I need help, call me”, but it was a way to give others the opportunity to get to know me and help if they wanted to. And they did. Which I’m glad for, because I needed it, more than I realized.

Their response made me feel part of a team and cared for. But it hadn’t happened if I’d stayed silent.

This is also one of the reasons I’m producing so much content lately (blogs, video, twitter, internal forum etc). I’ve decided to increase the frequency of my online output in general. It’s been challenging at times, but helped me so much with regards to remote collaboration, learning, feedback, building relationships, etc. I highly recommend it.

6. Creating great meetings, using rituals

Sometimes you show up to a remote meeting, only to feel a great disconnect: in world views, connection, and alignment. This is harder to do something about when you’re remote, but it’s possible! And important.

The first thing you need to do is decide that it’s worth investing in. It’s incredibly easy to say “nah, it’s fine, let’s just start talking about the topic at hand”. Don’t fall into this temptation. Your work will suffer, you won’t uncover what really needs to be talked about, and whatever you decide in the meeting may end up not happening anyway.

Instead, let’s start the meeting with a little exercise — a connection ritual, if you will. We call it connect, align, commit… and it’s great for any team wanting to get a better connection, whether in-person or remotely.

It goes like this: You basically give each person in the meeting two minutes to answer: “Who are you, and why are you here?” If that sounds very open-ended, that’s because it is. My answer usually goes something about being here to learn, wanting to create a better world, and wanting to learn how to collaborate better. And just saying this out loud helps me reframe the meeting into an opportunity, instead of a problem.

After a person has answered, everyone else in the room gets one minute to share positive feedback to that person, about what they said. And then you let the next person answer, and so on.

Remarkably effective for connecting.

Another quick exercise I like to start meetings with is to go around the room and ask “What is obvious to you that may not be obvious to the rest of us?” This usually uncovers interesting stuff and can help close the gap between people in different locations and timezones.

7. Following up and closing out

When you’re in-person, you can walk into a room and people will think about you and be reminded of some of the work you’re doing together. Your mere presence acts as a reminder.

Not so much with remote.

So when you’re waiting to hear from someone, or you’re blocked by someone, it’s very useful to learn the “casual check-in”. This was something I learned when doing sales: everyone hates getting the check-in email that says “How’s it going with this?”

Instead, the casual check-in checks in about something else. Something positive. Something helpful.

If you’re waiting for a colleague to complete something that’s important to you, you could write: “Hey, now that we’re finally very close to completion with [Project X], can we schedule a time for next week to start on [Project Y]?”

This communicates your expectations that you want to be done, creates a nice forward momentum towards the next project, and reminds them to finish up.

Or, simply: “I am so excited that we’re almost done!” The trick is to keep the momentum going, even if you have completed your part.

Generally, due to timezones, I try to start my day with thinking about what needs closing out or what other people are waiting for me on, before I dive into deeper, more focused work. It’s easy to lose entire days on projects if the ball is not kept alive during the right window, all due to timezones. And staying casually in touch a few times a week on important projects is a good way to avoid that — even if you’re not currently the one doing the work.

So that’s it — thanks for reading! Got anything to add? Share your list with us at @lookback or @littke.

We are more than we think!