Working Remotely, Part 1: Collaboration and Communication

Today’s blog post is written by Shasti Walsh, Associate Product Manager, PatronManager.

How do you work together when you’re far apart?

Stats consistently show that remote work is on the rise, and in demand. For example, back in 2016, a Gallup poll found that 37% of employees were willing to change jobs if it meant they could choose where they work from; and 43% of employees worked at least part of their time remotely. Studies on remote work consistently show productivity gains, higher job satisfaction, and improved employee retention. Combined with a strong diversity and inclusion policy (and hiring practices to support it), embracing the remote work trend could also make your organization more accessible to people with a wide range of experiences and cultures.

As technology improves and we move towards a work economy that supports more geographically distributed teams, it’s important to figure out how to work together when you don’t share a physical space! With products like PatronManager and other systems that live in the cloud, theoretically, this is easy. But it’s about more than just technology.

My colleague Christina and I have worked together at PatronManager for years, first as members of a tight-knit support team, later as managers on that team, and now as peers on separate teams. During that time, we’ve collaborated closely (despite only meeting in person a few times) and managed folks who were spread out all across the country, and even some abroad. We’re so passionate about the topic that we recently co-presented a session called “Working Outside the Box: Building and Supporting Diverse Remote Teams” at the Nonprofit Technology Conference along with Vee Bell, Director of Board Governance at Teach For America.

In this post, I’ll go through a few of the concepts we’ve found to be particularly important, and in part 2 of this series coming soon, Christina will share some specific strategies to help implement these concepts seamlessly.

COMMUNICATION

First, of course, is communication. We’ve found that there’s often too much emphasis on the importance of shared physical space as a proxy for real communication. Communication is different in a distributed space, and that’s important to acknowledge. But just being in a physical space doesn’t mean that you’re communicating — that often becomes clear when you lose the physical space.

We believe that communication must be intentional in order to be successful. As Richard Banfield wrote in this article about remote work for product teams: “Leaving communication to chance sends the opposite signal.” If you assume that communication will happen on its own, you’re sending a message that it’s not a priority — and in a remote context, communication by happenstance is much less likely to occur. Instead, be sure that your actions demonstrate that good communication is a top priority for your team.

Manager tip: An APQC white paper on leading virtual teams points out that remote teams have a way of exposing bad managers. When you see someone at their desk every day, it’s easy to assume that they’re getting their work done, and not dig deeper. When you take away those presence-based indicators, you’ll notice very quickly if there’s a solid management framework underneath… or not. As a bonus, though, the communication skills and structure required for high-functioning virtual teams are just as applicable to in-person work — so even if your team is not (yet) working outside the office, it’s important to develop your ideal communication framework now.

TRUST

Secondly, we’ve found building trust to be incredibly important — true in any relationship, but particularly crucial when you’re not in the same space. Two ways to build this trust are to establish clear goals at the start of a project or collaborative effort, and to agree on clear, visible metrics that you’ll use to measure success. Make sure that the goal-setting process is collaborative, and that everyone agrees on the intended outcome. It’s also important to agree on the metrics you’ll be using to measure success so that there are no surprises or misunderstandings later on.

Manager tip: Remember that trust has to go both ways: you need to trust your employees to do their work, even when you don’t see them regularly. Your employees need to trust you to provide them with the information and resources they need to do their jobs, to remember that they exist when you’re giving out promotions and raises, and to value their work even though they might be less visible.

EXPECTATIONS

Lastly, be sure that you establish clear expectations around communication for the team and whatever project(s) you’re collaborating on. Do you hold a quick team check-in on Slack in the morning? Are there regular team meetings? What communication channels will you use? It’s not helpful when one person is texting incessantly while another has a deep emotional connection to lengthy email threads. Establishing clear (and shared!) expectations at the outset will limit the number of misunderstandings and miscommunications you’ll have, allowing you to focus on the task at hand.

Manager tip: When setting these expectations as the manager or project leader, be sure that you’re prepared to model the behavior you expect of your team. If regular status updates are important, be sure that you’re providing regular updates as well. If you all agree to collaborate in Slack, don’t be the person who insists on using email instead. Communication works best when it’s consistent, and as the manager, you will be setting the example.

Join us for part 2 of this blog series coming soon to continue this discussion! My colleague Christina will share some of the specific tools and strategies we’ve found to be particularly helpful in creating a successful remote work environment. In the meantime, we’re curious; have you ever worked collaboratively in a remote environment? What aspects of that experience were particularly successful for you? Leave your feedback in the comments below!

The content in this post was developed in collaboration with Christina Johnson, Senior Manager of Client Support at PatronManager, and Vee Bell, Director of Board Governance at Teach For America.

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