It’s no longer a secret that remote employees work more productively than office-based workers.
But does that also mean they get more work done while at home? Well, not all the time – especially when they have to work in close collaboration with the rest of the team.
Stanford Professor Nicholas Bloom performed a groundbreaking experiment with James Liang, Co-Founder and CEO of Ctrip, China's largest travel agency – to find out if working remotely really impacts productivity. Half of Cleartrip’s employees in their Shanghai arm worked from home for nine months while the other half, the control group, worked from the office.
Customer service teams are a classic example. Support team members need to come together and collaborate to help customers. They work more efficiently when team members can help each other without difficulties.
But, they might find it tough to stay on the same page when they work remotely. Video conferencing and phone calls make communication easier, but they cannot help members form a camaraderie. Problems like lack of trust and a feeling of isolation can crop up when team members are not co-located. Teamwork suffers.
Fostering teamwork among remote team members
Let’s go off of a hypothetical situation. Jason is a support representative working from home. He receives an email from a customer, and realizes he needs his senior Susan’s help to resolve it. He forwards the email to her. Susan is in a meeting and does not reply to Jason right away. Later, she loses the email in her already-flooded inbox. Jason’s email remains unanswered. As a result, he gets a little anxious. He begins wondering why he’s not getting the right support from a senior team member. He’s not happy.
Even minor communication lapses can make people feel low and isolated. And this is why it is important for team members to “truly feel connected” when they work from home. Here are five things support team leaders can do to foster great teamwork.
1. Foster a feeling of togetherness
Keeping everyone motivated is a big challenge while working remotely. People cannot walk over to their teammates to seek help or share a personal problem. ‘Positive distractions’ like the watercooler conversations cease to exist. Team members can end up feeling lonely.
This is especially true for people who are new to the remote work culture. They are more likely to start feeling cut-off from the rest of the team. And that’s obviously going to have a negative impact on how they help customers. It’s hard to be empathetic towards the customer when you’re not feeling great yourself.
Schedule a casual daily standup
These must be meetings where employees just share what they are working on, and if they need help with anything. Keep the meeting light-hearted so that employees are comfortable talking it out. It’s also a great way to make sure team members are doing their best work, as they’ll always work toward what they can share with their team just to seek appreciation (if nothing else).
Find reasons to just connect
Every time the team does something great together, fix up a virtual beer or coffee meet-up. Spending good times together is a sure-shot way of promoting togetherness. It’s also a great icebreaker for new employees. When customer service teams “feel” that they belong together, they help each other, and provide great experiences to customers.
2. Boost morale at every opportunity
Working remotely often involves discussing tasks over Slack, video conferencing to sync-up on projects, and collaborating via project management boards. Amid this, softer aspects like recognition and morale might get overlooked.
A simple “no,” an exclamation mark, or a negative emoji might not mean offense to anyone, but can be interpreted negatively. It’s not always easy to tell. In an office setting, it’s easy to know when a person gets offended or is feeling deflated. Their body language usually gives it off.
But that’s not the case when people are working remotely. If someone is feeling low, they’ll probably keep it to themselves. This will naturally have an impact on the way they work, and eventually, the kind of service they provide to customers.
Managers must take efforts to uplift team morale even when everything looks good from the top. Here are a couple of ideas:
Have regular 1:1 meetings with your team members, especially with new support reps, or ones who’re working slower than their regular pace (it could be a larger problem than productivity). Just a 10-minute call every day can boost people’s morale. Make sure to keep the video on – it’s always more reassuring and comfortable for the employee to express themselves that way.
Reward people who are doing a great job. A surprise gift card delivered to someone’s inbox can make their day. Apart from that, if there’s an internal newsletter, give people a shoutout for the good work they’re doing. It could also be an org-wide Slack channel.
Why is collaboration difficult when teams work remotely? Because team members are often not sure what’s the best communication channel for the situation. For example, Jason emails his manager Daisy asking how can he solve a typical customer problem — and keeps waiting for a response.
Meanwhile, because the resolution required a lot of explanation, Daisy decides to keep it for the 1:1 with Jason (later in the day). Could things have moved faster if Jason had just called Daisy? Probably. It could have saved the anxiety of waiting for an answer. That’s why it would help if team leaders establish best practices for team communication.
Issue guidelines for email use
When support teams work remotely, it is natural for them to write more emails than co-located teams. Email becomes central to keeping everyone on the same page — but people might start writing too many emails — and that just slows down teamwork.
A good start would be to list down situations that are best handled over email, and then the ones that are better discussed over a phone call or a video meeting. If a situation needs a quick response, it’s better dealt over chat. If a customer’s problem is complex or peculiar, it’s better to discuss it over a phone call.
Apart from that, setting the right expectation for replies will help prevent confusion. Merck & Co. adds acronyms at the end of emails: NNTR – no need to respond and 4HR – Expecting a response within four hours. This does a fantastic job of setting the right expectations for their team.
You can always create your own versions and tell the team about it. It would also prevent responses that do not add value to conversations, such as “thanks” or “acknowledged”. And most important of all – ban reply-all for good. Encourage team members to not reply to all in the thread, and instead, CC teammates who actually need to act on it.
A lot of times we don’t make the effort to explain our thoughts in detail, and instead end up dropping hints and cues. What may seem like a clear instruction to one person, it might be a vague phrase for someone relatively new to the system. We tend to expect people to read between lines.
It’s okay when teams are in an office setting and they can hop on to a colleague’s desk for clarity, but when you’re working remotely, it leads to confusion. A lot of time gets wasted interpreting messages.
Managers can lead by setting an example: by being clear and elaborate when they write an email or a Slack message meant for the entire team. For example, if they want to tell the team how to help a customer troubleshoot a specific problem, they should document every step, attach screenshots, and be as clear as possible. There is no place for brevity in remote communication.
4. Find ways for people to voice their opinions
Voicing opinions while working remotely is never straightforward. Friendly suggestions like “I don’t think this is the best solution for the customer, let’s try something else” can be perceived as offensive or showing dissent.
When teams are not co-located, they are often afraid to disagree. Employees fear they might come across as brash and arrogant, or others might misunderstand them. And then there’s the fear of being wrong (a message on a Slack channel is forever and lives there for anyone to see). How do we get remote employees to express themselves, then?
Zapier's ‘safe word’ for disagreement
Here’s something really cool that Zapier does. The team has a “safe word” when someone does not agree with the way things are going. It’s a pomegranate emoji. Every time someone has a bad feeling about a project or an idea, they just have to react with the emoji. It’s lighthearted. Nobody gets offended. And the message is conveyed.
What else is safe? Video calls. Tell employees to just say “video call?” when they have an opinion about something. It’s easier for them to express their feelings. They get the body language going. They get the right tone of voice. They’re not afraid of others forming judgment to a Slack message. They don’t have to be prepared to defend if someone replies.
Voicing opinions becomes easy on a 1:1 call. When support team members have the freedom to express themselves, they feel more valued, and work better with more confidence.
5. Help team members work productively
In the end, it all comes down to how productive your team is. When team members work efficiently, they help each other, they get more done together, and they provide better service to customers.
But staying productive while working remotely is not easy for everyone. Despite an array of studies pointing out the benefits of remote work, some people truly struggle to work efficiently from home. More often than not, they just need a little support from team leaders, and sometimes colleagues, to get back on track. All-in-all, managers have to do what they can to help their team members work better from home.
Tell employees what really matters (and what doesn’t)
Staying logged-in throughout the day, or overstretching working hours, are counterproductive. But many remote workers tend to do this — it probably makes them ‘feel’ more productive. The problem is that when a person does not unplug, over the course of time, they wear themselves out. It’s no surprise that 41% of remote workers report high stress levels as opposed to 25% office-based workers.
Managers must convey to the team that working extra hours does not amount to brownie points. Handling a “really large” number of queries should not become the norm in the workplace. Tell them that the true indicators of their performance are the customer satisfaction surveys and the average time in which they resolve queries (or any other relevant metric for that matter).
Help them set boundaries – lead by example
When people work remotely, the line between professional and personal line becomes thin. Teams often face after-hours calls when they should be off the clock.
Managers must lead by example to help teams set clear boundaries. They must not expect team members to reply after-hours emails right away. They must not schedule team meetings before or after the core hours (times when the entire team is required to be available). A morning person won’t be comfortable with an 8 PM meeting, and a night owl will find 9 AM standups ungodly.
Encourage discipline to steer clear of distractions
Remote employees must understand that it’s their responsibility to be disciplined and organized. Many tend to mix work with household chores and gaming sessions. It’s only going to knock off their focus and they’ll get less work done. And it’s pretty easy to get distracted when one’s not in their office setting.
It’s nothing like the office. The entire team does not return to the desk together after a playroom break. It’s upon individuals to exercise self-control when working from home.
Managers must encourage employees to set up a mini-office away from the TV and the PlayStation, to take breaks at fixed times every day, and to dress as if they were going into a physical office. Getting out of the pajamas can do wonders at times. It’s up to managers to keep reinforcing how discipline makes or breaks people.
The key to delivering great customer service while working remotely is open communication among team members. Managers play a crucial role because they must foster a feeling of trust and togetherness in the team, help members feel good about themselves, and jump in with constructive feedback frequently. When team members work productively as well as collaboratively, they deliver great customer experiences.