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InfoQ Homepage Articles Hidden Habits Killing Your Remote Team’s Ability to Collaborate Effectively

Hidden Habits Killing Your Remote Team’s Ability to Collaborate Effectively

Key Takeaways

  • Certain bad habits and collaboration anti-patterns that have been a part of in-office work for a long time are exacerbated by the dynamics of working remotely or hybrid.
  • The impact of not addressing these habits is deteriorating team morale, lack of trust and connection required to do meaningful collaboration, and more silos between roles.
  • Learn specific strategies for recognizing and addressing four such habits, including optimizing for in-office employees, over-reliance on desk-side chats, and backchannel gossip.
  • Leaders can utilize better facilitation skills and best practices to help eliminate bad habits and improve the way their team collaborates.
  • By addressing the bad habits carried over from in-person work, leaders can help remote and hybrid teams experience stronger psychological safety and inclusion, creating more engaged and innovative teams. 

If you’re a leader, you’ve likely spent significant time thinking about how work—the way we communicate, share information, hold meetings, ship code, make decisions, and resolve conflict—has changed as a result of increasing remote and hybrid work.

You’ve had to learn how to deal with entirely new etiquette questions as a result of remote work, from how to deal with a constant barrage of “pings” from your corporate chat app, to whether or not it’s considered rude to have your camera off during Zoom calls. And you’ve had to adjust to all of these on the fly.

But what about all the bad work habits we should have tackled a long time ago?

It’s time to clean up our collaboration habits

Certain bad habits that were already important to address when in-office work was the standard are now exacerbated by hybrid and remote work. Instead of continuing to tolerate and accept them as the status quo, perhaps now is an opportunity instead to finally check them off your to-do list.

Why is it so important to address these patterns now, rather than later?

  1. Bad habits kill collaboration: The accumulated grime of bad work habits can hold your team back from feeling safe, comfortable, and valued at work—all essential components of being able to collaborate and be creative as a team. The good news? You’re holding the power washer and just need to turn it on. Set an example as a leader that you are committed to continually changing for the better—and that you want a culture where it’s okay to have hard conversations about things that need to change.
  2. Employees are asking for change: In a recent study on the ways companies and teams collaborate, 80% of surveyed knowledge workers said that virtual meetings are an essential part of their jobs—yet 67% of people still prefer in-person meetings. There is a clear opportunity (and need) for virtual meetings to improve, and creating better collaborative experiences for attendees is a huge piece of the puzzle.
  3. The stakes are incredibly high: As businesses face both recession and widespread resignation, any cultural habits that don’t serve collaboration and innovation are ultimately going to be detrimental to your bottom line. The impact of not addressing these habits is deteriorating team morale, increased burnout, and a growing lack of trust and connection required to collaborate in meaningful ways.

Four bad collaboration habits you can tackle today

So, what are the habits we need to address to improve collaboration in today’s hybrid world?

Here are four, along with recommended solutions, that I’ve observed during two decades of Agile coaching, professional facilitation, and management consulting.

Bad habit #1: Disorganized flow of information 

It used to be relatively easy to pop over to a colleague’s desk to touch base on a task, quickly troubleshoot an issue, or follow up on an earlier conversation. And because of close physical proximity, it was also much easier to include other relevant parties.

This kind of impromptu collaboration is invaluable for fast-moving teams, but it’s been hard to find an effective replacement within a remote team without contributing to meeting overload. Any off-the-cuff chat between two remote employees tends to require finding spare time on a calendar. And if any part of that chat becomes relevant to someone not in the meeting, it’s not easy to pull them in because they may be in a different meeting.

All of this contributes to a very disjointed flow of information for remote teams. To combat it, teams often try to focus on cutting down on meetings in the name of communicating the most important information in larger group meetings. But this in turn can hamper teams from moving quickly by bottlenecking important information until “everyone is in the same room.”

For teams to be able to collaborate effectively, they need the right information at the right moment—and they shouldn’t have to twiddle their thumbs or schedule three separate meetings to get it.

Solution: Invest in better documentation and asynchronous coordination

If people are constantly having to schedule follow-up meetings to catch up on missed details, learn technical engineering processes, or understand the structure of a marketing program, it presents an opportunity to improve your documentation—and save yourself and others from having to schedule another meeting down the road.

If that sounds overwhelming, it doesn’t have to be! Documentation doesn’t need to be as formal as in the past. Instead of feeling like you have to invest a lot of time and energy creating documentation, you can use the approach of building an innovation repository.

With better documentation, instead of imposing on someone to find a time on their calendar to have a chat to resolve a problem, the onus can be on you to review the documentation and then follow up asynchronously with any gaps or additional questions you might have.

Bad habit #2: “One size fits all” collaboration

From the same study, a majority of the respondents felt that virtual meetings—especially those attended by both remote and in-person workers—are dominated by the loudest and most active voices. And we could see this during in-person meetings, too.

For example, many teams default to holding “brainstorming sessions” the same way each time: You have a loose topic you want to discuss, so you open it up to free-wheeling discussion for 30 or 60 minutes. The person who scheduled the meeting might be taking notes, or they might not. The team converges around the ideas of the people who spoke up first or most confidently (especially if they are in a leadership position), deferring to their vocal command of the room.

Yikes! For teams to collaborate effectively, we need to learn to not associate extroversion with engagement (or good business sense) and realize that there is more than one way to collaborate and participate as a teammate.

Solution: Make space for all voices to contribute 

One effective way to avoid one-size-fits-all collaboration is to accommodate for common collaboration styles:

  • Expressive: Some team members like to see ideas sketched out with drawings, graphics, and sticky notes, and are likely to express themselves with GIFs and emojis. Expressive collaborators may have trouble engaging in hybrid meetings dominated by text-heavy documents and rely more on unstructured discussion to feel their most creative.
  • Relational: These collaborators gravitate toward technology that enables direct, human-to-human teamwork and connection. Fast-paced virtual meetings can feel draining to relational collaborators, so more intimate activities like team exercises or breakout sessions can help them surface their best ideas.
  • Introspective: These naturally-introverted collaborators like to collect their thoughts before offering a suggestion, and gravitate toward more deliberate approaches to collaboration. They may be frustrated with virtual meetings that appear aimless or poorly facilitated, and they prefer to have a clear agenda and formalized processes for documenting follow-up.

Not everyone fits cleanly into one of these three categories, but the principle at hand is the same: You need to be open to different collaboration styles and check in regularly to make sure you’re not skewing these interactions toward one style over the others.

Bad habit #3: Optimizing meetings for in-office employees

Once when my siblings and I visited my parents, I noticed an interesting phenomenon. After a family dinner, we migrated toward the living room to chat and play games, but half an hour later, we paused and asked, “Wait, where’s mom?” Only then we realized she was cleaning up in the kitchen alone. Even though we were adults who knew better, we were unintentionally behaving like our once-teenager selves!

A similar thing often happens with hybrid teams: remote team members often get unintentionally left behind from social experiences that in-office employees are enjoying together.

This can happen in a variety of ways, especially with how teams approach collaboration. For example:

  • Those physically present in a meeting overlook the need to adapt the conversation to equitably include those joining remotely. A meeting paced to in-office participants might move on from topics before someone who is remote has a chance to unmute and chime-in.
  • Remote employees may miss the camaraderie-building chat that happens before and after meetings, such as discussion around where everyone is going for lunch, what they did that weekend, or a funny inside joke.
  • In-office employees have the benefit of physical proximity to interpret body language, while remote employees may miss out on those more subtle cues or reactions.

When these things happen, “in groups” and “out groups” unintentionally form, making it hard to collaborate as an aligned, unified team.

Solution: Thoughtful facilitation and inclusion

Good facilitation helps create equal footing for all participants in collaborative meetings and can prevent remote employees from feeling like second-class citizens. To improve collaboration, facilitators might:

  • Take responsibility to record the meeting for those who were unable to attend or may want to listen to the discussion again.
  • Host a shared whiteboard or simple document for collaborative note-taking where participants may offer input and questions without coming off mute.
  • Monitor the pacing of the meeting, making sure to pause when necessary, ask someone to repeat a comment that remote employees may not have caught, or seek engagement from someone that has yet to participate.
  • Provide context and “room resets” to those joining late, or those who missed a pre-meeting chat, so that no one feels excluded.

It may not seem like a big deal, but going above and beyond in these ways is an important aspect of helping people feel like part of a whole—and that feeling helps them feel safe enough to contribute their best ideas.

Bad habit #4: Backchannel chat and gossip

Bias is at the core of much of the gossip that happens in offices. We make assumptions on the barest of information because we're separated and only see faces across screens. When we’re all busy and exhausted, it becomes easy to turn a misunderstanding between coworkers into full-blown contempt for that person, quickly undermining the morale and connection of distributed teams.

And because it’s so easy to Slack someone a sarcastic comment during a company all-hands, or send that eye-roll emoji during a team meeting, we can easily pull people into our negativity, which isn’t fair to them or the person we’re creating gossip about.

Solution: Create a psychologically-safe culture that addresses conflict

It doesn’t matter whether it’s someone reheating fish in the office microwave or you feel a team member dropped the ball on a project– any conflict has the potential to derail a team’s interconnectivity and their ability to collaborate effectively.

The way to cut through that is to resist venting to our work friend. We need to address things head on! One easy place for this to happen is during retrospectives and post-mortems. With facilitation and a solid agenda in place, everyone on the team can air their frustrations and bring narratives into the light instead of keeping them in Slack DMs.

By treating each other courteously, and acknowledging that conflict is a natural part of working together, we can move past those issues and create stronger teams as a result.

Enacting change to improve collaboration

As a leader, it’s within your power to enact change. Making changes to cultural habits and patterns that have long plagued organizations is not a waste of time; it not only improves your team’s collaboration dynamics, but has an impact on your bottom line, as better collaboration means faster innovation.

By helping your teams have psychological safety, comfortability, and confidence that they can share their ideas and be treated as an equal on a team, you also give them permission to move quickly, trust their ideas, execute with autonomy, and grow your business.

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