For my startups, the majority of my team members have always worked remotely. When the announcement came to shelter-in-place due to COVID-19, there wasn’t much we changed about our work environment. However, I did recognize that my team members now may have had their spouses, children and other family members home alongside them.
Here’s what I have learned as an entrepreneur about keeping a startup team connected as part of a remote work environment before and during COVID-19. Applying these eight tips will help keep tight connections despite the physical distance, helping to boost productivity, motivation and morale.
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Use connector tools
I’ll start with the technical aspect of keeping your startup team connected. Most articles out there have already covered the best tech tools for working remotely, so I don’t need to tell you about what to use except to say that you shouldn’t just go with what every other startup uses.
We do use Zoom, but we also use other video conferencing tools with some of our meetings. For example, the free Zoom plan (and, yes, we like to focus on as many free options as possible) only lets us have meetings up to 40 minutes long. When we have other online sessions planned, we opt for Google Hangouts or another platform.
The point is that it’s important to use the connector tools that fit your company’s particular needs. What did the trick for us may not be what works for you.
It took us a few trials to see what worked for the team, including the devices they used, their location and the different ways we would use the tech tools. Also, ask your team what they like to use for communication, collaboration, project management, file sharing and more.
Cover all communication bases
For those startups that have not previously worked remotely, they may think that a video conference tool and a platform like Slack covers all of the communication bases. That’s not enough and doesn’t account for what might go wrong.
Recently, I had a team member experience an internet outage. However, this individual had my cell phone number and immediately sent a text to alert me to what happened and that they wouldn’t be online for some time.
We take “always-on” for granted. If this crisis has taught us anything, its that things happen far outside of our control. If that person didn’t have my number, I would have no idea what happened. Now, we make sure we have each other’s current contact information for phone calls and texts.
We also have remote team members in other countries, so it’s been important to utilize other communications channels like WhatsApp and other common messaging tools that are available outside of the U.S. Make sure you understand what tools are and are not available to your team members and plan accordingly.
Take social interaction online
Startups have long held a reputation for possessing a lively work culture. Silicon Valley startups often tout their arcade-style hangout areas, happy hours and fun weekends together.
In the past, when possible, we have held in-person social events for those on the team who live in the area. However, the new environment has led us to come up with new virtual social interactions. We’ve also increased the frequency of these events, as we’ve seen how it helps to provide a positive distraction from the stress and concern associated with COVID-19. These online social events have also helped us become more focused when shooting for increased productivity.
With a scattered remote workforce, we find times that coordinate across time zones or that allow some of us to hang out together virtually. Some of the social interactions that our team enjoys include online trivia and karaoke, as well as competitive online gaming tournaments.
Have more huddle sessions, but fewer meetings
Staying connected doesn’t mean holding a meeting every other minute. There’s a lot to be said about doing less when it comes to meetings.
We’ve switched to a huddle format that lasts no longer than 15 minutes per session. There’s only one topic or question to answer before we wrap up and return to work. When we do hold longer meetings, which are no more than once per week, the focus is on larger projects or issues where more team members participate.
Although I am accustomed to working at all hours of the day and sometimes seven days a week, I quickly learned that not everyone else on the team does or wants to work that way.
With a full house during COVID-19, your team may not be available at all hours to answer your phone call. To avoid any miscommunication, create a shareable calendar to schedule those connections and designate availability for each team member.
Amp up emotional intelligence
There is a saying that goes, “You never know what someone is going through. Be kind, always.” That’s never carried more weight than right now in the midst of COVID-19. Your team members may be dealing with a sick loved one or worrying about paying the bills because their spouse got furloughed.
And, when you add remote work to the environment, it can be even more difficult to know what’s impacting your team. That’s why it’s important to focus on patience, empathy and concern.
I understand that my team is human and everyone has their own lives, so they may need space or a listening ear. Being a leader with emotional intelligence will help navigate your remote team through the current turbulence and trauma while ensuring they take time for their own needs and self-care.
Laugh a lot
One of the best ways to connect with anyone is through humor. It’s also the best medicine for alleviating stress and worry. I hear it may even be good for your immune system.
Obviously, you have to maintain some structure and professionalism as your company’s leader. But, that doesn’t mean you can’t laugh together. We’ve shared everything from memes and emojis to hilarious videos and funny pictures of each other.
Dial it down
Finally, be prepared to let your team decompress and switch off from the remote environment. We are inundated from every channel with constant information. It can be overstimulating and overwhelming.
Anyone who is still able to work through this pandemic most likely feels fortunate. But, that doesn’t mean they have to work all the time to feel grateful. Establish work hours and policies that frame your workday and give the team the time they need to step away.
This includes setting boundaries for contact. You don’t really have to send that instant message to remind them of a project on Sunday night. Otherwise, your team members might feel compelled to respond or start working when they should be playing a game with their family or enjoying a movie on Netflix.
I’ve found that by following these tips, they’ve helped to strengthen my team’s bonds, improve communication and increase productivity. We work better together and feel more confident about the future.