Water Cooler 2

Upgrading the Virtual Water Cooler

Telecommuting and remote working are popular cost-saving measures, but the benefits can extend far beyond the bottom line. Many companies are choosing to make remote working a core part of their organizational structure, capitalizing on the productivity gains of distraction-free environments and the lack of overhead that comes from working in already existing spaces. Thanks to a slew of new technology, this approach has numerous benefits, from being able to meet customer demands in multiple time zones to assembling a team quickly to deal with an emergency.

But remote working has a few key drawbacks, as anyone who’s worked from home can attest. Isolation, exclusion from important meetings and social outings, and endless conference calls can make working from home a disaster if it’s not managed successfully. How do the pros make it work? By using solid team management practices to cultivate community intentionally, regardless of where team members are located. And they don’t wait until problems arise; many companies that successfully employ a remote workforce find that solid team building starts from the very beginning.

Recruiting and On-Boarding

Although some companies transition well from an on-premise community to a partial or fully remote team, training employees for remote working is best done early. Candidates need to be able to manage time well, show initiative, and have enough patience to put up with the occasional frustrations of working with partners in multiple locations. It’s also important to hire (or train) good communicators and writers if much of their brainstorming will be done over email, video conference, or chat.

Perhaps most importantly, managing employees remotely requires trust. Hiring people who can be trusted to do their jobs well and contribute to the company’s culture from afar is crucial, as is continuing to trust them once they’re hired. Nothing breaks an employee’s spirit more than micromanaging, draconian check-ins and snooping software, so it’s important to hire people who can be relied on—and then allow them to do their jobs with personal, appropriate oversight. Trustworthy team players who will take the extra step to ask questions, get to know their teammates, and invest in people they don’t see every day are the key to making remote working a success.

Day-to-Day Communication

There are many tools available that will reduce the endless flow of emails and conference calls that consume many a remote worker’s time. Communication tools like Slack or Basecamp can organize multiple streams of conversation and even make space for virtual “water cooler” conversations.

Many companies also find it helpful to have a procedure or hierarchy in place for various kinds of messages. Quick questions that need immediate answers are often best sent through chats, instant messages, or texts, while longer questions that can wait may be more appropriate through email. Face-to-face conversations over Skype or other video conferencing software can be helpful for partners or small-group check-ins, while an occasional conference call can work well to disseminate updates or information to large groups of people.

Innovation and Collaboration

One of the main things remote workers miss out on is the opportunity for spontaneous idea-swapping and brainstorming. New research suggests diverse teams that offer a variety of social and industry-related perspectives can boost innovation, but even a highly diverse team still needs space to share and explore ideas in constructive ways.

Sometimes, distance can be an asset in this case. Introverted team members may feel more confident sharing their ideas when they have time to think them through and compose an email or post a comment on a shared project page rather than being put on the spot in a meeting, as long as intentional space is made for constructive collaboration.

Training employees to work in pairs, a popular option in programming and software development, can also promote this ideological cross-pollination. It requires some finesse to assign suitable teams and resolve conflicts, but done properly, this approach combats isolation, cuts the workload, and strengthens the cohesion and loyalty of the entire team.


Although trust plays a big role in remote company relationships, appropriate accountability can keep team members on the same page and catch any problems early. It can also reduce isolation and ensure that all perspectives are given voice.

Time and activity tracking software can be useful tools, but team check-ins, quick reports, and planning meetings can also help everyone see how different individuals are contributing to overall progress and help team members get to know each others’ strengths and weaknesses.

For best results, these meetings should be short, focused, and positive, highlighting good work and setting the stage for a successful week. One-on-one check-ins can also help managers keep tabs on how different parts of a project are developing.

Pros vs. Cons

Remote working is a viable business structure and can even lead to new breakthroughs for companies, but it’s not a cure-all for overhead and expenses. Individual people are still the ones that make a company work, whether they’re working on-site or remotely, and investing in resources to help those people become more successful is not something to skimp on, regardless of employee location.

Photo by Kai Hendry, CC BY 2.0

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