Tips for building great remote or hybrid teams

Struggling with remote working? We can help you supercharge your remote teams with 4 simple tips

February 11, 2021

Tip: Great remote teams need identity and purpose

Unless you want to be on Zoom for eight hours a day (hint: you really don’t) you’re going to have to trust that your team members are working towards the same goal as you are.

Great remote and hybrid teams are crystal clear about who they are, why they exist and what they are trying to accomplish. They can clearly articulate who their customers are and how their work contributes to their needs.

In the remote:af team launch one of the first activities that we get teams to do is to develop a shared sense of identity. Agreeing on a team name, being creative with imagery, colours and typography, developing your own memes or even a digital mascot, are all part of creating something that’s bigger than the individual.

Also don’t be afraid to think beyond the virtual and into the physical workspace. Sometimes physical reminders - a poster, a desk trinket, an item of clothing - can help connect your virtual teams.

Reform Clothing (www.reformclothing.com), who provided custom jackets to The Avengers production team, the FalconX team at SpaceX and the remote:af mission team, provides a great example of how you can use physical items to help remote teams to express identity and even celebrate achievements.

Great remote teams also align on purpose. They know who their customers are, they know why they exist and they are clear on the impact that they want to have. We want remote / hybrid teams to be able to make decisions independently and enjoy bounded autonomy. Alignment on purpose is a critical first step towards this intent.

In the remote:af team launch we create an elevator pitch for the team which helps them to quickly and clearly articulate their purpose, assisting with alignment and making onboarding easier.

Teams should reflect on their purpose both when they are planning their work and when they are retrospectively thinking about how they can get better.


Tip: Build empathy without being intrusive

The working environment is one of the primary differences between co-located and remote or hybrid remote work. In office based work, the organisation creates and controls the environment where work is conducted. In remote work the worker invites their teammates into their environment.

Not all working environments are created equal and as remote leaders or team mates it is critical that we build empathy for our teammates’ situations. Some team members:

  • have less space to work in than others
  • have limited control over the people who share their workplaces (e.g. children, people with special needs, rental environments)
  • might be expected (due to cultural or family dynamics) to undertake household responsibilities
  • might be at risk of family or domestic violence
  • might be embarrassed about their living situation

We’ve designed the situational empathy exercise in our team launch to enable team members to express some of these things without risk.

In teams with psychological safety we can use these as prompts for a conversation. In lower trust environments we encourage team members to complete the exercise asynchronously and then explore the results as a team.

Tip: Design working hours for overlap, not for alignment

While many people have been forced into working from home due to the pandemic, what they are experiencing now is not a carefully designed promise of remote work, rather a temporary and stressful state.

The idea that you have to rise at 5am to succeed at work is nonsense. Homo sapiens appear to have benefited from diversity in circadian rhythms.

A group of anthropologists monitored sleep in the Hadza people of Tanzania who still live a hunter-gatherer existence. Note the authors: “Based on these findings, we propose that plasticity in sleep-wake patterns has been a target of natural selection in human evolution. There could have been favored frequency dependent selection for flexible sleep. For example, in relation to effects of conspecific and predator threats on safety during terrestrial sleep, which may be helped by light or fragmented sleep and the flexibility to catch up on sleep at a later time.”

The researchers referenced studies that showed that a variety of factors are relevant to sleeping patterns, including age, climate, sunlight and moonlight, activity and genetics.

"Out of some 200 hours for the entire study, for only 18 minutes were they actually all sleeping synchronously," said lead researcher Dr David Samson of the University of Toronto, Canada. "The median was eight individual adults who were alert at any given time throughout the night - so that's 40% of the entire adult population of these camps. "So, it was pretty astounding how asynchronous the sleep was in this group."

You can take two key things from this research. Firstly, that the people in your teams are pretty unlikely to all have the same natural sleep / wake patterns, particularly in teams that are in multiple time-zones. Secondly, that napping is perfectly natural and nothing to be ashamed of.

In a great remote team, we design for overlap, not for alignment:

  • Early risers should be able to start work at an obscene hour of the morning and finish early.
  • Late risers should be able to sleep in, and start work when they’re going to be most effective.
  • There’s no reason why you shouldn’t be able to take the time to drop your kids off at school, have a nice lunch, go for a bushwalk or hit the gym.
  • If you want to build a nap into your remote work schedule, go for it!

Personally I do my best creative work between around 10pm and 2am in the morning, with the assistance of a glass of Over the Way’s fabulous 2018 shiraz (shameless plug). I absolutely love a post lunch nap, particularly in the summer months.

The remote:af team has been working with Mark Kilby and Johanna Rothman on their ‘Hours of Overlap’ chart which allows teams to explore the daylight hours where they have crossover.

This exercise forms part of our team launch pattern and you can use it to articulate the hours where team members want to work, cater for time-zone differences, and design the hours when you agree to overlap.

Great remote teams enable people to design their work around their life, rather than designing their lives around their work. By understanding customer demand patterns, and understanding the timezones and work preferences of individuals in the team, we can develop an optimal work schedule.


Tip: Know the work

Great remote or hybrid remote teams understand the sources and nature of demand on their teams, what they need to do to satisfy that demand, and how they measure and improve their productivity.

In the remote:af launch pattern we borrow from Mike Burrows’ Systems Thinking Approach to Implementing Kanban (STATIK) which you can read up about here in Amanda Varella’s great blog: https://elabor8.com.au/start-coaching-new-teams-with-statik/, or at AgendaShift or Kanban University.

Ask your teams to think about:

  • Who are the customers of the team and how satisfied are they with the team’s current performance?
  • Where does demand on the team come from, what are the customer’s expectations in terms of quality, how does it differ in terms of urgency, what noticeable patterns exist.
  • What is the flow of work in the team, where does the work go when it’s done, and is it really ‘done’ at that point or does it go to another subsystem?

This information forms the basis for the design of your system of work, which includes:

  • The meetings that you’ll need to have to stay in sync
  • The metrics that you’ll use to measure team performance and drive improvements
  • The flow of work from start to value delivery

These tips will help you build great remote and hybrid teams which are crystal clear about who they are, why they exist and what they are trying to accomplish.

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