Designing for Team Spirit in a Remote World

Drawing of desk with plant, notebook, pen, laptop, and a hand gripping a coffee mug

It's been an adjustment, working from home. 

Since the pandemic started, my staff has experienced isolation, ill family members, death of loved ones, demands of homeschooling, health scares, spousal job loss, and whole host of other concerns which would be difficult to handle under normal circumstances. But compounded by the fear and uncertainty of the pandemic... well, it's a lot to navigate.

Over the past 4 months, two things have consumed my work brain: running emergency ops and supporting my team in their transition to working from home. I've written on Twitter about a few of the things I've been doing to support my staff and make them feel like a team, instead of a group of individual contributors. I've received several questions, so I thought I would share my approach here, in case it's useful. 

Here's how I've designed our remote team experience:

Personal check-ins at our daily video stand-up meetings

Every morning, we have a 15-30 minute stand-up meeting with video. We share what our priorities are for the day, share announcements, and generally check in to see how each one of us are doing.  

We have a lot of "this is not normal" discussions. This is a very safe space. I am very open about where I am mentally; I share when I'm struggling with anxiety or its side effects like insomnia. This meeting provides space for my team to share how they are feeling as well. They don't have to share details but often, they do: from fatigue to anxiety to depression to I'm waiting on news from the doctor to I'm just not feeling it today. Anything goes. This allows us to ask what they need: re-prioritize tasks? more breaks? support? communicate by text only today? extra help? a mental health day? 

Sharing how we are actually doing is important in our team: if someone has a big day ahead and they are struggling, the rest of the team can step up to help. I think this is our team's super-power.

Spontaneous support via chat

Chat is the main tool we use for contact throughout the day. We use a government chat tool that is like Slack (and Slack when that tool goes down ;) We have a number of channels for different parts of the operation so that people can focus on the topics that affect them. When we were full-tilt in emergency operations, we had channels for a variety of different functions to focus conversations and reduce the noise to everyone in general. As emergency ops have slowed, we have reduced the number of channels to help people manage the number of chats they have to follow. These will continue to ebb and flow as required.

Collaborative work with video

One thing you need to know about my team is that we are not fond of meetings. We do, however, love a good working session, workshop, Unstuck Meeting, or other opportunity to work together. You should see the excitement when we book a workshop to work through a new task or an Unstuck Meeting to figure out an issue we're stuck on; the excitement is team-wide. And lucky for us, we generally don't have a lot of "Zoom meeting fatigue" because talking-head presentations or droning status meetings are not a big part of anyone's week.

To collaborate, everyone usually fires up a shared space (like an online whiteboard) on one computer and logs into the video meeting on another device so that we can see each other as we discuss our work. Keeping the faces visible instead of just screen sharing means everyone is more engaged in the discussion. And using a shared whiteboard means everyone can contribute to the discussion by entering their own ideas and discussing them. Without someone gatekeeping the document (as is normally the case with screen sharing), there is a strong sense of collaboration, even if the project being discussed is one person's responsibility. 

Clarifications by phone or video

Sometimes text just doesn't cut it, so I switch to phone or video. Also, tone. We all know tone sucks in chat, so if I need to clarify or correct something, I will pick up the phone or open my Zoom room and ask the other person to meet me there. It's the equivalent of popping your head into someone's cubicle to ask them a question, and it can lead to resolution so much faster than typing. 

Just book me

If someone needs some of my time throughout the day, they can just book space in my calendar. I keep my schedule up to date and allocate time for my own deliverables or meeting prep, so they are free to grab as much unallocated time as they need and book something. These one-on-one discussions are usually by video and usually include screen sharing as we review their work. 

I try to have at least 1 weekly one-on-one with each team member. This provides everyone with a bit of my time and often, if time permits, the discussions expand to include a review of their immediate priorities and how they are doing personally. 

Daily catch-up time (aka Office hours)

When the pandemic started and people were transitioning to working from home (some for the first time in their lives), I held 2 hours of office hours every day: 30 minutes first thing in the morning, 60 minutes at lunch, and 30 minutes in late afternoon. These gave everyone several standard recurring time periods when they could reach me, just like if I was in the office at work. More than just face time for questions, this became important social time for staff who lived alone or who needed to chat with someone other than their housemates. After a month, I reduced office hours to morning and afternoon, and now I run office hours only in the afternoon. 

The most common question I get about office hours is: what do they look like? I log in to my personal Zoom room and just hang out, working until someone shows up. When someone pops in to ask questions, I give them my full attention. Sometimes someone will just want to have company and we will quietly work alongside each other by video. On particularly busy days or days we have important events or meetings (we host a national seminar series, for example), they will stop in to debrief or everyone will join to find out how things went (we all share the seminar host role, so lessons learned are important). 

On Fridays, I usually hold them a little earlier and everyone stays a little longer. No one wants to be the first to hang up. It's really sweet.

Celebrations and Team bragging

We like to celebrate things going well, whether professional or personal. On my birthday, when I logged on to stand-up, everyone had something Star Wars: clothes, masks, paper puppets. It was amazing. For a team member's birthday, we all wore trucker hats since that's a staple in his WFH wardrobe. These small gestures make us laugh and help us gel as a group.

I make notes of things people mention in stand-up or office hours: life events, side projects, family stuff, whatever. I will often enter these in my task list and set a reminder so that I can ask about them with the team after they happen. Acknowledging each other as individuals helps to highlight that we are fully rounded people, more than just our jobs and our time together each day. We cheer, we wave, we support. 

This month, I am working on performance agreements. I wanted to make this an opportunity for team building. I sent each member of the team a form to fill out about all the other team members and asked them to brag about each other. What do they add to the team? What skill would you like them to teach the rest of us? What would you like to work on with them this year? I'm compiling the responses into a little one-pager that each of them can keep for posterity, showing how great the rest of the team thinks they are. I've received a few and the comments are so wonderful and genuine. I can't wait to give everyone their colleagues' brags :)

So, how's it going?

One of my colleagues mentioned that she feels like a bunch of individuals work for her, and that they are completely siloed at home. Not in my shop. One of my staff is on temporary assignment for the summer and his biggest lament was not being able to attend stand-up every day (his team is invited to my office hours though, so he was somewhat consoled). Another said that a friend was feeling really isolated from her team since she started working from home, but that the way we are working, we still feel like a team. "I haven't felt like I miss any of you!" She was quick to confirm that she isn't sick of us yet, either :) So, I'd say that it's going pretty well.

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