• Jennifer Katrulya

Working remotely - Tips for keeping your remote team close and engaged

Whenever I tell someone that my team and I work remotely, I often get the same response. I'm often told, "well we couldn't work that way, because it's important to us to really build and maintain the team relationships and culture, and know what everyone is working on." And I get it. For many people and companies, "face-to-face" is still the only way the business can imagine running. However, putting the time and effort into growing and maintaining a remote/telecommuting team, and working with clients/customers remotely, can offer many businesses an almost limitless list of benefits. Just a few of the pluses include fewer employee sick days, bad weather closures, lower rent/occupancy costs, improved employee retention, and the ability to hire talent that is best suited for the work, rather than being limited by geography. And after over 15 years of working this way, no one could ever convince me that it is better to work 100% of the time, in an office. There are just too many upsides to the remote setup, if it's done right.

But how DO you overcome the obstacles of having team members isolated, and without that team culture energy?

Bridging the "face-to-face" gap:

One of the most common challenges companies face, is the feeling that when everyone is working from home, or from on the road, not being able to see each other breaks down the personal connection, and erodes company culture. One of the best ways to quickly overcome that hurdle is to use a solution like Sneek ( https://sneek.io/ ).

To be fair, I cannot take credit for learning about solutions like Sneek. Although I had used a variety of methods to keep my teams connected in the past, the "always connected" work environment was introduced to me by a previous boss and now dear friend of mine, when he hired me to work for him as part of a multi-billion dollar, public company. At first I was not excited about the idea of being on camera all day. But I was working remotely, while the rest of the team was located together, in another city. I quickly came to love the "always connected" environment, and now I cannot imagine working any other way. At the time we used a solution that has sense closed down, but it got me hooked. When it was time to look for a new solution, that same genius though now former boss of mine, introduced me to Sneek.

Sneek gives a company the ability to easily create "teams" of people, and invite them to see each other on a "boxed" screen. When a user signs on, the program snaps a picture of each team member, and they can choose to add a line of text, if they want to post a status update. That picture will refresh every one minute or five minutes, depending on the preference selected. If a team member needs a little bit of privacy to make a call, work while grabbing lunch or a snack, or maybe they are just feeling a little under the weather and need a video break, each user can choose to "pixel" their photo. When this option is selected, you can tell that the team member is still at the computer, but is is not easy to make out specific facial expressions, etc.

If team members want to connect for a video call, Sneek makes this easy. Based on the settings each user has active, they will either be shown as available, busy, or away. If a team member has a status set to "available," other team members, can simply click on their image on the screen, and easily connect for a video chat. If a user is marked as "busy," then when someone clicks on their image to connect for a video call, the user receives a "knock," asking them to make themselves available. Our team seems to prefer this setting, because it keeps everyone feeling connected, but other team members cannot simply "hop in," without knocking. The last of the three settings, the "away" setting, is a true "do not disturb" setting. You can't connect to a user who is set to "away," and you can't knock. In our case that is generally when we know that person is on a client call, or is doing something else that has them unavailable. If there is an emergency, we will generally send a message through our separate chat app, or send a text, or other options.

Keeping the fun and positive team culture:

Getting a remote team connected and upbeat in the morning, can be tough. When your workday begins by just sitting down at your desk and jumping into work, even having the ability to see your colleagues on the screen, can feel very quiet and disconnected. It becomes important to find quick and simple ways to get everyone chatting and off to a united start. One simple way we have addressed this, is by sharing a morning joke. I first started this many months ago now, when there were several mornings when we all just seemed exhausted, tired of the dreary weather we'd been having, and closed off in our respective homes. I found a few (work appropriate) jokes, and started sharing one each day, with the team. The impact was immediate! Just sparking that morning laugh gives each of us the little boost we need, gets us chatting for a few minutes, and gives us time to stay connected as a team.

One of the other things we enjoy doing, is making light of some of the funny pictures that get caught on Sneek. As we are working, it can be easy to forget, that Sneek is capturing whatever expression is on your face at that 1 or 5 minute interval, when the app takes your next picture. Sometimes we choose our poses on purpose, either to take some nice team shots, or to take some purposely silly ones. But many times, no one planned on the picture that shows laughs and smiles, or the "deep thinking" photos, or the other silly faces that show up. We do have an internal "good sport" system, where we promise that any screenshots taken for internal laughs, are not published or distributed. If we do take an occasional screenshot we want to share on our social media account, or for other purposes, we do get the approval from the people in the photo. Trust and comfort are a bit part of what makes using a solution like Sneek, so successful.

And as valuable as Sneek is for connecting and keeping the fun and productivity going, sometimes you can see when a team member is just truly having a frustrating day... and come on, we all have them. Being able to see those expressions on another team member allows you to "click the face," and ask them what you can do to help. When someone can tell you are in need of a helping hand or even just a short video chat, it really does help to bridge that remote gap.

Not just for small companies and teams:

If you think a solution like Sneek could really only be used by small companies, think again! Just a few weeks ago I was having a conversation with an executive from a large technology company that employees several thousand employees. He told me that members of his team were using Sneek to communicate with a vendor they are working with, in another country. Using Sneek helped to keep the teams in both locations on track and feeling much more like one group, even though they are oceans apart.

Now that I've shared so many positives about using a solution like Sneek, I do want to share just a few of my pet peeves, for transparency. Having used Sneek for about the last three years, I will say we have dealt with a few bugs. First if several team members are signed in, we have found that someone's "cube" on the screen can go to a black screen, both when the pictures are taken, and in video chat. I have had this happen while working in several different locations, as have our team members. So, we know it is not simply because of internet bandwidth issues in one employee's location, or something else simple like that. Other times, even if you can see all of your team members, video calls may fail to connect. Or, a team member may be signed in, but you cannot see them. All of these things can usually be quickly resolved by either refreshing the screen, or by exiting and restarting the software. In the few instances when I have needed to reach out to the Sneek support team, they have been very helpful.

These are just a few of the ways the JenKat Consulting team has managed to work together very successfully, in a remote environment. We'll share many more tips and experiences in future posts. We'd also love to hear from you about you own experiences, if you are leading or working as part of a remote team!

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