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ADW Together: Six tips for effective remote collaboration

In an effort to provide the ADW community with thoughtful resources for navigating the current reality, we asked #ADW19 hosts to share their insight on life and work at home. Below, Jannis Hegenwald, staff designer at Atlassian and Trello and host of last year's event "Beyond Being There: How Remote Design Can Make Space for the Best Ideas" shares six tips on how to improve your team's remote collaboration.

Over the last couple months, a lot of teams have been thrown into the deep end of remote work. Getting started with remote work without prior experience or a heads-up can be difficult and leave teams feeling unproductive and frustrated. Whether you're brand new to remote work or a remote pro who's been doing it for years, here are six tips that are sure to improve your remote collaboration immediately.

1. Set yourself up for success

There's no I in team, but that doesn't mean you should brush over your personal workspace. Finding a home setup that works for you is key to being a productive remote worker and a good collaborator. The most important part about your home setup is that you have a designated work space. For some, that means having a room you can turn into your home office, with a proper desk, a door that closes, and everything else that allows you to be productive. But a lot of people don't have the luxury of an extra room, or would feel isolated and unproductive in a personal office.

One way to designate a workspace is by creating your own rules and practices around it. When I lived in Berlin, I worked out of the kitchen of the apartment I shared with two others. I decided that one of the seats at the table would be my workspace. When I sat down there, I'd be working. There was no way to put up any kind of dividers, so I used my headphones to create a sound divider between me and the rest of the apartment. The third part of my setup was that whenever I was on a call, I would put up a little sign on the door so my roommates knew to be mindful. It wasn't the perfect remote setup by far, but it was a good solution for what I had available at the time, and it helped me become a better collaborator.

2. Tune in to your own productivity

Another important aspect to being a productive remote worker is figuring out how and when you are at your best, specifically with regards to time management. The first question I recommend you ask yourself is whether you're a maker or a manager. Makers need large chunks of time to focus and get into flow while managers are generally in more meetings and hence have less open time. If you're a maker with a manager schedule, you'll feel like you're not getting anything done. On the other hand, it's easy to feel useless or lonely if you're a manager with a maker schedule. Figure out what your role is and then adjust your schedule accordingly.

There are a ton of scheduling techniques out there, from blocking hours of time for focus time, to the Pomodoro technique, to the ultradian rhythm of 90-minute working sessions. The most important thing is for you to determine which of these works best for you and then to communicate it to your team so they can adjust their expectations.

3. Communicate more and better

When you're in the same space with your teammates, you can overhear conversations, have random chats in the break room, or read a teammate's body language. Remote collaboration makes these aspects of communication more difficult, so it's important to communicate more and in a structured way. On a remote team, you never quite know what your teammate is currently focused on or how much they know about the subject at hand. Providing more context and detail than you may think is necessary is a great way to avoid misalignment and unrealistic expectations. If you feel like you're over-communicating, you're probably doing it just right.

Another important piece to good remote communication is to default to communicating in the open. Try to only send 1:1 messages if they are really necessary. Communicating openly in chat may be intimidating at first, but it enables others to chime in or get more context. Lastly, communicate with positive intent and assume the same for your team mates. Trying to read between the lines easily leads to misinterpretations and unfounded assumptions. If you feel like the communication with your teammate isn't working well, escalate the medium and move from email to chat, or from chat to a video call. This gives you a chance to interact more directly and helps clear up misunderstandings.

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4. Collaborate with intent

Communication is a huge part of collaboration, but there is more to remote collaboration than communicating well. Similar to defaulting to communicating in the open, it's important to default to working in the open, too. That means keeping documents and files open by default and sharing them early and often—even if they're just a draft. Enabling your team to understand and contribute to what you're working on is even more critical for remote teams, where there are less ways to stumble upon work.

The other side of collaborating with intent is being thoughtful about the processes on your team, and how they're different when you're remote. A lot of teams fall into the trap of replicating their processes in a remote world, which usually leads to a spike in meetings. But not only are more meetings not the answer, the meetings themselves also need to adjust. Whether you're checking in, brainstorming, or going through a prioritization exercise, remote meetings need more preparation and structure in order to be valuable. This means preparing the meeting up front, having an agenda, sharing the information with everyone, and thinking about ways to document what's been discussed in the meeting. While this might feel like additional work, it will ensure you use your time well, and you have documentation that you can share with the rest of your team.

5. Establish rules and rituals

To make sure you don't always have to start from scratch when you're collaborating with your team, it's useful to establish some rules and rituals around your team collaboration. One of the rules or practices I've found super effective is to use keywords to indicate how work is delegated. One framework that's easy to pick up is delegation poker. It's a set of 7 different delegation practices which are each established through keywords. For example, if my direct manager asks me a question and prefixes it with the keyword Consult, I know that she is asking for my input but she will make the final decision. If she prefixes it with the keyword Delegate, however, I know that she is fully delegating the decision to me.

Establishing rules like this creates a shared frame of reference and avoids misalignments. In addition to rules, rituals are very important for remote collaboration. On my team, we do a retrospective every two weeks. This is our time to discuss how the last two weeks went and what we can do better. We also have a daily standup and a weekly sync meeting to make sure we know what everyone's working on. Collaborating remotely can feel stressful and messy. Shared rituals and rules can establish structure and a clear engagement model that makes it easier for teams to collaborate remotely.

6. Make time for connections

Since you and your team can't just grab lunch together or have a spontaneous happy hour after work, it's important to find ways for your team to connect remotely. On my design team, for example, we have a weekly meeting that is only intended for bonding. We usually spend this time playing games or talking about things that are not work-related at all, which allows us to get to know each other better.

Another way we build relationships at Trello is through what we call Mr. Rogers. Once a month, after our town hall meeting, you are randomly paired up with a few other Trellists for 15 minutes. This enables us to get to know people we don't directly work with, which creates fantastic connections across the organization. In addition to scheduling time, you can also use the video calls you already have to bond with your team. Now, I'm not saying you should waste people’s time by scheduling meetings for longer than they need to be and turning them into personal conversations, but if a meeting ends early or you're waiting on an attendee, consider using this time to socialize and build rapport with your teammates.

That’s it, six ways to improve your remote collaboration. Give these tips a try and let me know how it goes!

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Jannis is a staff designer at Atlassian & Trello, where he is working on tools that help teams around the world get more done. Before joining Atlassian, Jannis was a consultant, developing design strategies for clients like Mercedes-Benz, Experian, Dell, and Samsung. Jannis enjoys sharing his experiences and has held talks and workshops in Germany, Japan, Switzerland, and the U.S.