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Things I learned after five years on a hybrid-remote team

 

By Ali Riehle, Freelance Designer and Researcher, working remotely since August 2018.

We're grateful to Ali for sharing her experiences, especially as we've dedicated time in our remote community to discuss challenges and solutions to hybrid team relationships. Any opinions expressed within this blog post are those of the author and not necessarily held by Workplaceless itself.


 

Most recently in my role on the design and development team at LUMA Institute, I worked at the company headquarters for a few years, called in from home occasionally, and worked remotely and nomadically for one year. These experiences have presented me with many challenges and have changed the way I think about collaboration and work in general. 

Being a member of a hybrid-remote team isn’t easy. At times, I’ve felt isolated, left out, or frustrated by the technical problems this setup can create. Aside from all that, I’ve benefited greatly from this arrangement by growing my communication skills, expanding my world view, and having many belly laughs.

While many of the items below are behaviors I’ve observed in others (and have yet to practice myself), here are a few things I’ve learned and aspire to do in the future:

 

Diminish the idea of “home” and “away” teams

Occasionally, I’ve heard people draw attention to the “away” (aka remote) individuals on a call, grouping them as one entity. This separation can create unnecessary awkwardness and division among a group of people. Rather than seeing the team as two camps, I’ve enjoyed seeing the ways that my colleagues have blurred that distinction to bring people together.

 

Find little ways to surprise and delight 

Once, as we broke for lunch during a large working session, our remote colleagues were delighted to find that pizza had been delivered to their homes. My boss Justin was great at doing things like this and had managed all the logistics that morning to make sure that the members of our “away” team were included—and fed.

 

Be connected and available

A major difference I noticed between working from home occasionally and being fully remote was figuring out how to structure a workday. When I worked from home in Pittsburgh, it was often because I had some heads-down work to do. I usually still called into stand-ups and other team meetings, but I often picked work from home days because I was getting away from the distractions of the office or had a day with little to no meetings. 

 A key difference when I started to work remotely was that I had to figure out how to bring more of what I had experienced in the office into my workday, instead of less. Rather than stepping away from meetings to focus, I needed to try to inject myself into office culture, which opened my eyes to how my other distributed colleagues must have felt. I tried to address this by greeting everyone who was on a call as if I was walking into a meeting room, communicating with in-office and remote people in the same ways and by being online and available throughout the workday (aside from the occasional away message).

 

Become partners in time

With a global team, needing to consider what time it is for everyone has been a great learning opportunity for me. Many tools (like Figure it out and Calendly) have made this super easy, but I’ve also learned a few ways to be effective when managing and talking about time.

 

Waste not, want not

On any team, it can be easy to over schedule meetings or stand-ups until you are just going through the motions and the time together is no longer valuable. One way that our team managed to avoid overscheduling meetings was to occasionally have quick, asynchronous Slack stand-ups or to not have a meeting unless there was a clear agenda. While time management is certainly a challenge for many of us, learning how to be more efficient with time in the workday is a distinct advantage of being on a hybrid-remote team.

 

Watch your language

Another thing I adopted as a member of a hybrid-remote team was to be mindful of how I was thinking and talking about time. When discussing the time of an upcoming call, I started to say things like “half-past,” “quarter to,” or “top of the hour” instead of the local time to reduce confusion. Needing to adjust to this way of working has also taught me to be very explicit about timing when I’m emailing back and forth with someone. Referring to the time in the other person’s timezone or including the appropriate name (CST, MST, PST, etc.) is an easy addition that can reduce a lot of back and forth.

 

Use the buddy system

When you’re joining a meeting from thousands of miles away, it’s really helpful to be able to connect with someone on your team. Whether it’s for a quick check-in, tech support, or water-cooler gossip, having a buddy is incredibly helpful.

 

Make inclusivity the norm

A few things I took for granted while working in an office were stopping by someone’s desk to say “hi,” the chance to debrief after a meeting, or the ability to chat during happy hour. Sometimes, when part of the team is remote, it can be easy to have an out-of-sight-out-of-mind attitude, unintentionally excluding people from these types of moments. Our team addressed this by scheduling frequent check-ins, having communal working time where we “sat with each other” on video calls, and having happy hours on Zoom

Despite our best efforts, it was still difficult to replicate some in-office experiences. However, after I hung up from a video conference meeting I had facilitated remotely one day, my boss, Laura, messaged me on Slack to tell me that there was a follow-up conversation happening in the room. She quickly sent me a link to rejoin the conversation and I instantly felt included. My colleagues Aubrey, Kim, Jori, and Pete were also great at casually checking in with me to see how I was doing regularly which honestly felt like they were stopping by my virtual desk to catch up.

 

If you see something, say something

One way that I try to be a good friend is by following a personal rule that I made for myself a few years ago. If I see someone with spinach in their teeth or toilet paper stuck to their shoe, I have to tell them right away. I’ve learned that this is also a good thing to model when working with a distributed team. Oftentimes when I’m in meetings, I’ve sent a note to someone on Slack to ask if my audio or video is okay. Doing so makes me more confident that I’m able to contribute and it’s great to know that someone is looking out for me. So, if someone’s video is frozen, they’re sharing the wrong window, they forget to mute themselves, or their audio is hard to hear, you should be a friend and tell them.

 

Build bridges to span the distance

While the time and space between members of a distributed team can make things difficult at times, I have also found remote work to be a great opportunity to learn about new cultures and find unique ways to create shared experiences.

 

Expand your worldview 

One of the best aspects of being on a hybrid-remote team is getting the chance to work with people from all over the world. At one point while I was working in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, I connected daily with teammates in Ireland, Nigeria, Colombia, and North Carolina. I found that being on a team with my colleagues at LUMA made me more curious and informed about some of the current events or issues across the world. Being up to date on global elections, holidays, religions, lifestyles, languages, customs, or natural disasters expanded my worldview and deepened my understanding of my teammates’ experiences. I think this has also been beneficial for empathizing with and understanding customers as well.

 

Bring people into your world

One fun thing that our team did to connect was to dedicate a little time each week for a short show-and-tell presentation that we called “Chew on This.” For 10 to 15 minutes every Monday morning, a member of the team would share a visual presentation about something inspiring, interesting, or otherwise thought-provoking. Sometimes it was connected to design or something we were working on at the time, but it could also be completely random or weird. Over the years, we learned about things like: family history, spelunking, festivals in Colombia, revolutionary war reenactment, the Berlin wall, children’s book illustration, geocaching, and the flat earth society. Once, I judged a virtual cook-off by making space for people to create dishes in MURAL. I heard that recently, someone on the LUMA team made a science fair-esque volcano and had it erupt on a video call. Aside from being interesting and fun, having this time to share and learn together was a great way to bond as a team as we kicked off a new week.

 

Find ways to connect in physical space

To strengthen the bond of a hybrid-remote team, it’s great if you can meet in person at some point, if possible. Lots of remote organizations and teams are finding ways to do this once, twice, or even three times a year. A few years ago, our boss Justin set aside a budget to bring our team together in Pittsburgh around the holidays and it was so nice to be able to shake hands, give someone a hug, and have a meal together (we also got some work done, too!). Justin collected some thoughtful local gifts to share with our remote colleagues, and it was fun to see them wearing their Pittsburgh T-shirts on a work call after the visit.

In addition to some nice team time at our home office, as I transitioned to working remotely and nomadically, I was able to meet up with three current and former coworkers in Paris, Copenhagen, Ireland, and back in Pittsburgh! I feel very lucky to have had this opportunity and have found that the connections I’ve made on a hybrid-remote team are strong. Many of these people have become great friends of mine, despite the distance between us.

 

Create space for career development

When I decided to go remote, I hadn’t thought of some of the challenges I might face surrounding career development. Being on the ground in Pittsburgh, I’d been exposed to opportunities and built a network of connections that I couldn’t necessarily take with me as a remote professional. Now that I’ve been working remotely for a year and a half, I’m learning new ways to make being nomadic an advantage when it comes to my career.

 

Nurture your network

I’m very grateful that in 2020, there are so many ways to meet people and grow a professional network, no matter where you live or work. As a designer and researcher, I’ve found that Slack groups like Mixed MethodsRemote Woman, and We Work Remotely are great ways to make connections, share ideas, and explore job opportunities. I’ve also connected with lots of great people by attending webinars and most recently, my first Networkplaceless event. A few years ago, I connected with a group of people from the Mixed Methods community and we started having a bi-monthly “Researchers Working Group” call. It has been great to have these new friends to turn to for support and have some people I can talk to who I don’t work with on a day-to-day basis.

 

Reflect upon and celebrate your accomplishments

One thing my friend Jori (who works on a hybrid-remote team) recently shared with me is a year-in-review document she created to reflect upon and celebrate her accomplishments at work. I think that this could be a powerful career development tool because it can be difficult to visualize and share your work as a hybrid-remote or fully remote employee. I haven’t tried this yet, but I plan to use it as a tool to document what I’m doing and highlight my achievements in the future.

 

Sweat the small stuff

There are so many things to think about when you’re on a distributed team that it can be a bit overwhelming. One way to make this easier is to put extra thought into managing logistics and improving the employee experience. At LUMA, one of our team values was “Sweat the small gestures,” and I saw many of my colleagues do this to great effect, taking on extra work in addition to their regular responsibilities.

 

Be thoughtful 

While it’s always important to think about what your teammates might be going through, it’s especially important during those special or difficult moments in their lives. Members of my team have done this in the past by celebrating birthdays and team departures with a nice communal card made in MURAL. I enjoyed writing a few postcards to the home office while traveling and keeping tabs on when to wish someone a happy birthday or acknowledge a work anniversary. My coworker Kim was great at remembering these types of milestones and sending thoughtful gifts to colleagues if they were welcoming a new baby, which I know was greatly appreciated.

 

Set your intentions

Of all the things I’ve learned about being on a distributed team, a seemingly simplistic and important one is that you need to be more conscious of your actions, even the smallest ones. For example, if you’re on a call and your laptop is being used as the microphone for the group, try not to type or create a lot of noise that would make it difficult for someone to hear what’s being said.

Ultimately, you have to want to make a hybrid-remote arrangement work as an organization and a team, or it won’t. As an individual, you help set the tone for how people work together, for better or for worse. Turn on your camera during video conferences. Smile. Watch your body language and expressions. Make goals for how you will work together. Find creative ways to collaborate. Then reflect and iterate if things aren’t working.

 

While being on a hybrid-remote team can be challenging and create tricky interpersonal dynamics, there are so many bright spots. Over the past five years, I’ve benefited from learning how to navigate both common and complex situations from my teammates. As I reflect on the tension, empathy, thoughtfulness, and growth I’ve experienced, I’m excited to share these learnings with people who are driven to make distributed teamwork amazing. 

Whether you’re a member of the in-office team, someone who dials in from home, or a digital nomad, I hope these small gestures inspire you to have more delightful interactions and build deeper connections on a hybrid-remote team.

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