May 06, 2021

Rethinking remote collaboration: The challenges and advantages of working together, apart

An oft-quoted adage says, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” In our work lives, this tends to ring true. True innovation and excellence come out of collaboration. Working effectively with your colleagues is an essential skill in any job. As anyone whose third-grade report card read, “Doesn’t play well with others” can tell you, that’s sometimes easier said than done. Add to that the challenges presented by remote work, and it’s even more daunting. If you haven’t gotten comfortable with remote collaboration, now’s a great time to develop those skills, and to reframe some of the challenges as advantages. Consider this article, infused with insights from Bravely Pros, your go-to primer on working together from afar.

Defining successful collaboration

Let’s start by spelling out what effective collaboration actually means. (Here’s our first tip: you can’t take for granted that everyone’s starting from the same understanding, so you’ll save time and prevent confusion by defining key terms as early as possible.)

A handful of basic elements are always at play in successful collaboration, though the specifics of each may differ based on the context.

  • Respect: Everyone in a collaboration wants to feel respected. In fact, most workplace conflicts are, in their distilled form, a matter of one party not feeling respected by another. Collaboration requires people to thoughtfully challenge each other; a foundation of respect makes that possible.
  • Results: To put it as generally as possible, something will come out of the group effort. More often than not, there’s a specific deliverable in mind, but sometimes the collaboration is successful because of (not in spite of) a change in plans along the way — this can happen when the group values their impact on a shared mission over a pre-determined outcome.
  • Efficiency: Now, before you get the wrong idea, efficiency is not the same thing as speed. In this instance, efficiency means directing time and energy in the most impactful way, including by playing to individual strengths, setting clear objectives and expectations, and limiting space for unproductive error.

With all of these ingredients in place, you have the recipe for collaboration that makes good on the promise of “going far together.”

Teamwork on hard mode: Know the challenges

We probably don’t have to tell you that collaboration doesn’t translate cleanly to remote work; there are some necessary adjustments. These three key differences are the reason:

Something’s missing in your communication.

Much has been said about what we lose when we don’t have non-verbal cues. Video software bridges the gap somewhat, but for a clear dialogue, nothing beats face-to-face.

The majority of remote conversation happens via written text, whether by email or instant message, which can leave room for misinterpretation. Norms differ wildly from one generation to another, even on matters as seemingly banal as ending a message with a period.

No matter how clearly you communicate, there’s still some potential for misunderstanding, especially around the tone of a written message. (Is this message angry or just direct? Passive-aggressive or just unsure? Sarcastic or just unexpected?)

Video has its limits, too. Basic conventions like turn-taking aren’t as simple when there are delays and lags. Besides that, it’s exhausting, and relies on all parties having the time, a quiet space, and the requisite energy available at once.

Try this: When it comes to the tone of written comms, you can save yourself time and anguish by starting from an assumption of good intent. This doesn’t mean giving people a pass for bad behavior. Rather, it means erring on the side of taking others’ messages at face value. When there’s evidence to the contrary, or you’re just not sure, you can still ask for clarification: “What did you mean by that?” Setting an expectation that you say what you mean — and trust others to do the same — eliminates the guesswork.

Also, don’t forget that old standby: the phone call. It has all the benefits of real-time verbal communication, doesn’t leave you stuck in your seat, and can be a refreshing change of pace in a day packed with video calls.

Asynchronous work has you out of sync.

Increasingly, people are getting to take advantage of one of remote work’s greatest benefits: the flexibility to optimize your time for doing your best work, even if that deviates from a standard schedule.

As a result, we’re working across time zones and around personal commitments. Where you may be used to an immediate response, you’re now waiting minutes, hours, or even until the next day. With this shift comes uncertainty and a greater need to plan ahead.

Try this: Some people feel more confident writing than speaking. They thrive in the written word for a variety of reasons, not least among them the freedom to take their time in forming a complete and thoughtful response. Even if you’re in the group that’s more comfortable with speaking, you can still take advantage of the extra time when using email or instant messaging.

Your fastest answer isn’t always your best answer. The solutions and possibilities that can occur to you once you’ve had time to process are often the most creative and effective. When you give yourself permission to take that time, you’re giving the people you work with a better outcome.

Still, be sure to set expectations with your collaborators. Be clear about when you’ll next communicate, even if you need time to nail down the specifics of what you’ll communicate. This allows everyone to plan ahead based on their own timelines. Besides, no one likes to be left on read.

It’s all work and no play.

Most of us have learned how to productively manage our need for social interaction while in the office. Social conversations in the workplace can be re-energizing, and they tend to happen organically when collaborators are in close proximity.

Remote work is more isolating. We tend to either be working silently and independently or in a meeting with a strict agenda and no time for distractions. Without room for spontaneity, no amount of meetings can scratch the social itch.

Try this: First, reframe unstructured conversation — it’s not a distraction, but a necessary recharge. You don’t get work while you’re asleep, but when you don’t sleep, getting work done becomes impossible. Socializing is the same way.

Make space for a few minutes of chit-chat at the top of a meeting. It can set the group at ease and reinforce your shared commitment.

To go far, go together — even if you’re apart.

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