Working on Dispersed Teams

What Remotees Want You to Know

Remote workers are an integral part of the workforce, but it can be easy to forget them. I can vouch that sometimes a remotee will pipe up from the conference room speakerphone, and we exchanged looks of shock and panic through stifled giggles because we forgot they were on the line. This isn’t a testament to a remotees’ value; they’re key players we need. Being out of sight can naturally let people fall out of mind. “If they’re at a disadvantage, why don’t they just speak up?” you ask. Some of a remotee’s visibility is within his or her control, but the rest is determined by the centralized team. It’s not a fair arrangement, but it can be fixed.

Red Hat’s remotees had some great ideas for how office staff could be more inclusive. We shared a conversation through their internal mailing list, and this is what they had to say.

  • Turn on that camera!
    This was the overwhelming message.
    Remotees need everyone in the meeting to enter the virtual meeting room and utilize those webcams. Meetings can’t be equitable when visual cues only apply for those present in the meeting room. Many of the remotees separately used the phrase “level the playing field” when stressing the importance of video camera use. “Everyone then has the same limitations, cross talk, and side conversations are more limited,” shared Troy Dawson. It’s hard to get a word into a conversation when people can’t see that you have something to say. They also want to know who you are, build a relationship. Otherwise, you’re just the idea of a person to them, and they’re an imagined figment to you. “We are not just text!” expressed DJ Delorie. Troy Dawson agrees, “Seeing a person’s face consistently really helps when you need to communicate outside of the video call. No longer is this person just an IRC handle, they are now a real person.” They want to know you and to be known. When using a video conference room, use the room system camera to show everyone, including the remotees. This face time adds dimension to their presence on the team and builds networks that will help the overall group.
  • Meet up
    No amount of video chatting can compensate for a live meeting. “Nothing can compete with a physical team meeting. Not even close. If you don’t have the budget for this, you’re fighting with one arm tied behind your back,” said Markus Armbruster. Try to meet as a team at least once. Annually or biannually is best. Team gatherings are great for knocking out large objectives, but they’re crucial in solidifying relationships. I’ll talk more about this in the post How to Build Community in a Dispersed Group, but the main point in this context is to gather and socialize through non-work-related activities.
  • Make time for chitchat
    Don’t wait for an annual event to talk to remotees. Set aside a few minutes of every team meeting to talk about anything. Mike Bursell encourages off-topic chatter; “People bond more when they know that someone’s daughter has just aced an English test, or that the work on the house is proceeding slowly.”
  • Be time zone friendly
    Many remotees stressed the importance of reasonable meeting times. As a courtesy, ask someone before scheduling a late night meeting. Always include a time zone with the suggested meeting time to avoid confusion. Only schedule meetings at an anti-social hour if it can’t be avoided. “Negotiating a one-off evening meeting is being flexible; making it recurring is taking advantage of people,” said Stephen Tweedie. I’ve experienced months of 11pm and 7am meetings with no end. The focus shifted to the annoyance and family interruption rather than on the task at hand. Nick Coghlan suggested team design with time zones in mind, trying not to expand further than 6 hours of separation. “Beyond six hours, you’re really talking about multiple collaborating subteams, even if they report to the same manager. There simply isn’t enough overlap time on IRC or good time slots for video meetings to sustain a fully integrated team,” he said.
  • Let us lead
    Give remotees time to spotlight a project or specialty topic. It’s good exposure for their personal brand and value to the team. Also, teammates may not know what a remotee is working on without watercooler talk. Bridge the gap with some attention.
  • Provide a support network
    Remote new hires especially need an intentional support system. Provide a mentor for cultural acclimation and training. Make sure that the remotee has an SME contact list for core responsibilities. These tips are true for junior employees and role shifts as well. An isolated new hire will flounder, and the whole team will suffer.

Some minor changes can radically change the virtual work environment for remotees. They’re not asking for much, and they’re not really complaining. They want to be part of the greater organization just as much as you do. Understanding how to keep channels open for remote engagement positions the team to function at its highest level.

My other posts on this topic cover:

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Last updated: February 26, 2024