The New Rules of Engagement for Remote Collaboration

Kristen Craft | April 24, 2018

This guest post comes to us from Todd Stewart, Co-Founder & CEO of ContentPair – a hand-selected marketplace that matches industry experts with well-read business blogs. He is also an adjunct professor at Bryant University and an avid trail runner on the weekends. Connect with him on LinkedIn and Twitter.  

Think of how great it is to sit around the table, with a bottle of wine – or whiskey depending on your mood – and catch up with co-workers, friends, family etc. Having an in-person conversation and seeing the raw emotion on people’s faces is really an invigorating feeling. However, as the world becomes more reliant on digital communication, how can we retain those rich experiences and rich emotions when collaborating?

Let’s face it, most businessmen and women have more face time with their computer than a real human being. We apply our own interpretations to interactions, guessing at the tone, volume, and cadence of every email we receive.  How many times have you found yourself in one of these situations:

  • It’s 10 pm, your phone alerts with a notification, and your manager asks you to locate a certain graphic for a presentation. You don’t know if you should do it now or in the morning.
  • You’re on the phone with a few remote colleagues and they’re not responding right away so you feel uncertain if they’re paying attention or not.
  • You randomly get a text from your boss that says, “call me.”

Needless to say, we live in a crazy time if getting a text from your boss after-hours can cause your heart to skip a beat. But as we usher in more digital communication and increase our reliance on remote employees, we’ll need to fine-tune our ability to successfully collaborate online.

In my experience, the difference between effective and ineffective remote collaboration boils down to four things. They are the new rules of engagement for remote collaboration.


What makes for successful remote collaboration?


Break the fourth wall: whenever possible, use some form of video chat



To understand why video chat is so effective, let’s go back to the opening scene of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Remember when he fools his parent’s that he’s sick, sits up in bed, looks right at the camera and says “They bought it.”  Remember that? At that moment, in seeing Ferris “break the fourth wall” and talk to the camera, audiences far and wide immediately felt closer to his character. He felt relatable, likable, and most of all credible. Looking someone in the eye is one of the easiest ways to build trust, and when most of the collaboration between remote employees is digital, that aspect of collaboration gets lost.   

I was first introduced to the power of video chat when collaborating with the CEO of HelpScout, Nick Francis. The first time we met was over a remote ZOOM meeting. Since this was the first time we met, I just assumed that we were going to use audio without video because I thought he would multitask during our meeting. Maybe that was naïve of me, or an indication of the companies I’ve worked at? (everyone uses video chat but mutes their video? It’s very strange.)

Naturally, I started the meeting with my video on mute – not knowing that Nick would join with a wide smile, and his video ON. I immediately unmuted my camera and smiled back. It was refreshing to see someone take time out of their busy day, smile at me, and give me eye contact. I immediately found myself building trust and likability with him faster than by phone or email.

There are two things in this world that I believe are contagious – the common cold and a genuine smile. To build trust with your remote team and improve collaboration, use video chat as much as you can.


Be Consistent with Your Actions: Predictability wins



How many of you have friends and co-workers that immediately reply to your emails?

Now, how many of you get confused, and even concerned, when that same person doesn’t respond right away?

When collaborating remotely, it’s critical that you are consistent with your communication or else the other party’s expectations will be broken, negatively.

There is nothing more frustrating than a co-worker who will immediately reply back to a few emails right away, then go dark for the rest of the day, only to respond at night. Or better yet, they respond on a different platform with a one-word answer, leaving you utterly confused.

Being consistent and reliable in your communication is a key component of successful remote collaboration.


Create a Company-Wide Standard



I work at a tech company. It’s no secret that the engineers prefer Slack, the sales team prefers email, and the c-level execs prefer phone, text, and even drive-by desk conversations. Sound familiar?

Each channel on its own works perfectly for each department; However, when there is an inclining of cross-collaboration between teams, effective communication vanishes.

Successful companies implement a company-wide standard for which channels to use when.  They don’t necessarily ban a channel; they just strictly enforce when it’s used and for what.

This reduces the risk that someone goes looking for a file they thought they received on Slack, when in fact it was really sent via email.


Effective Remote Collaboration Means Clarity Over Brevity



One of my core tenants in life is: communication is everything and everything is communication.

Often times when I tell people this, I imagine them thinking that I’m someone who enjoys standing on the soapbox reciting harangue after harangue, “Would you just shut up already!” I imagine them thinking.

While it’s true that I love communication, it’s false that I enjoy the soapbox. I enjoy clear communication, regardless if it’s long or short. People say, “the shorter the better” with digital communication, but just cutting content for brevity may cut pertinent information.

There is a fine line between those lengthy color-coordinated email chains and those terse text-like responses.

Many of the high-performing teams that I’ve been on had one thing in common – clear communication.  Before you press send on your next email, or before you jump into a conference call, think about whether your message is on-point and clear.

What do you think? Have I rambled too long? Does the importance of clear communication overpower brevity? 🙂


The Future of Work



Applying these rules of engagement can help nearly all companies communicate and operate more effectively. For those of you who currently collaborate with remote teams, I hope you can apply some of these thoughts. For those of you who are considering collaborating with a remote team, I hope this article nudged you in the right direction. With more and more companies embracing remote-first cultures and an ever-increasing amount of flexibility around working from home, these skills are becoming critical to high-functioning teams.

If any of you have additional thoughts on how you foster effective remote collaboration, please comment below.  We’d love to hear other strategies.