Good leaders know that getting employees to collaborate with each other is about encouragement rather than making demands. Workers tend to be more creative and communicative when they feel free to do so—and their environment plays a large role in that feeling of freedom.
But fostering a collaborative environment is difficult enough in an office setting—how about when the majority of your employees work remotely? The rise of the remote worker is one of the biggest human capital trends of the year, which means cultivating a culture outside of the office is becoming even more important.
Luckily, helping remote employees stay in touch and engaged is easier than ever, thanks to improved management techniques and the advancement of communication technology. You’ll still need to take some extra steps to ensure everyone is working together as smoothly as possible, however.
Instill a strong company culture
A shared vocabulary, understanding of where to go when a problem arises, and a group buy-in to company values makes it easier for people across teams to reach out to one another when they have questions or ideas. Codify standard operating procedures and norms so remote workers feel comfortable engaging other people on the team when appropriate.
Invest in the best communication and workflow apps
It’s never been easier to work remotely thanks to the advent of lightning fast, intuitive, and stacked communication and workflow apps.
One of the most popular communication apps is Slack—an instant messenger platform that lets you talk directly, in group channels, and even to yourself (good for note-taking). You can add vendors or freelancers to your channels, use it to send reminders or track documents, and pin important messages and files for quick reference.
For workflow, Trello is another top choice. Here you can create projects, add members and deadlines, and follow their progress from ideation to completion—all while communicating with workers on what they might improve or change in the comments or custom fields.
The paid versions of these apps are more robust than the free versions or trials—and if you’re serious about creating a collaborative environment, pinching pennies on being able to add employees or make group calls isn’t the way to go.
Create a digital water cooler
The water cooler, where employees gather to catch up and talk about their weekends rather than their work deadlines, is a little tricky to recreate digitally. While you can’t build a space for people to accidentally bump into each other online, you can create forums where employees can talk about non-work related items with one another.
For example, with Slack you can build themed channels around topics outside of workflow. Try a few on sports, music recommendations, recipes, or art—just as starters—and encourage employees to make some of their own for whatever interests they want to share. People that talk about their favorite TV shows with each other are more likely to comfortably interact on work topics as well.
The “Propinquity effect” is the theory that the more we interact with people, the more likely we are to like them—so give people plenty of space and opportunities to interact.
Facilitate, don’t direct
One of the biggest barriers to effective team functioning, as noted in Workplace Psychology, is a leader who directs rather than facilitates. A good leader should set the tone and “ensure that the team profits optimally from its shared knowledge, experience, and skill.” This is a difficult tightrope to talk when leading remotely, so be sure to use the tools discussed above to stay in touch, be available when needed, and illuminate opportunities for success—rather than hand down directives and “force” collaboration.
Meet in person whenever possible
As the leader of remote workers, it’s your job to find ways to meet them in person when possible, to remind all parties that there are real people behind the emails, messages, and even video calls. Ask remote workers to occasionally work from the office or bring them together at a nearby coffee shop for an afternoon to catch up and check in.
Team-building activities are also a fun way to get all team members, remote or otherwise, to open up to one another. Offer employees the chance to play team-based strategy games from their computers, or match people from different parts of the company to do a non-work-related activity, such as deciding on what the office holiday gifts should be this year. This can foster communication and connections among your remote team members, who may feel isolated in their roles.
Show off people’s human sides
If you can’t get people together in real life as often as you’d like, find ways to celebrate people’s personal lives (with their permission). Create a monthly newsletter highlighting the stories and backgrounds of new employees, or shoutout milestones or achievements, like birthdays or anniversaries, in work communications channels.
Gamification is when you apply aspects of game-playing—point scoring, competition, rules of play—to everyday life. Encourage teamwork by making a game out of it: Offer small bonuses or gifts to remote workers who team up with each other to complete a project or reach a goal.
Get employees to switch roles for a day
You might have an all-remote team, or a team with just a few remote workers. Either way, show each employee how the other half lives by switching their role for a day: Ask remote employees to come in (if possible), and have on-location employees work from home. Both sides may gain a better sense of the challenges of staying connected, or feeling solitary, when working in this different capacity.
It appears as though remote work is only going to get more common in the years to come. A report from Gallup found that more Americans are working remotely and for longer periods than just a few years ago. Leaders need to prepare for a future of managing at least some remote workers, and learning how to encourage collaboration among them now will only make it easier going forward.