Successful Remote Teams - Experts Have Been Predicting It for Years, and Now It’s Here

As more technology flooded the workplace over the last several years, the concept of remote work teams remained a "down-the-road" transition in the minds of most employers. Now thanks to COVID-19, every organization that can go remote has, and employers are scrambling to understand how to create successful remote teams.

Source: SHRM

The question of how one builds successful remote teams relates to how one builds a collaborative company culture. Thankfully, the idea of the virtual workplace existed long before COVID-19.

Were Work Teams Already Going Remote Before COVID-19 Began?

Even, Google, the quintessential tech empire, claimed that in-person work environments were essential to collaborative teamwork (How Google Works by Eric Schmidt and Jonathan Rosenberg).

But then a few years later, Google’s People Innovation Lab found that their remote teams produced some of the most productive and innovative efforts in company history. 

Source: Upwork

The world of freelancing has also exploded. Ironically, the flexibility and low cost of off-site contractors have led many employers to replace entire departments with remote contractor teams.

Among W-2 employees, some team members were bold enough to ask their employer for flexible schedules - part-time at home, part-time at the office. Single parents, individuals with disabled parents, and other work-life conscious employees could maintain their work from the convenience of their home office.

Source: State of Remote Work 2019

Even economist Joel Kotkin (a frequently-cited expert in many MBA classrooms) predicted robust remote work teams in his book, The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050.

Incidentally, Kotkin's predictions are three decades late. And while many executives and managers feel caught off guard in sending employees to work from home to slow the spread of COVID-19, the reality is that more and more organizations find that they were ready to take the plunge all along.

As such, remote work teams are not just a "pie-in-the-sky" dream of new tech startups. Entire industries are managing thriving virtual workplaces.

Are Remote Teams Going to Stay Remote After COVID-19 is Over?

Some companies like Zapier launched with remote teams and have remained so. Google told employees to stay home until next summer (2021), and Twitter has announced their plan to let employees remain remote if they choose for as long as they have a future with the company.

But remote work teams aren't just for large or tech-focused businesses. Thousands of employers are growing more comfortable with the virtual workplace model.

"We estimate that 56% of the U.S. workforce holds a job that is compatible (at least partially) with remote work. We know that currently, only 3.6% of the employee workforce works at home half-time or more. Gallup data from 2016 shows that 43% of the workforce works at home at least some of the time. Our prediction is that the longer people are required to work at home, the greater the adoption we will see when the dust [from COVID-19] settles." - Global Workplace Analytics

Still, the challenge remains: how can organizations complete the dramatic cultural shift and achieve successful remote teams?

As it happens, we at Exobyte work from home, and we've managed to scale our brand despite not working in close proximity. Our team of experts even spans multiple time zones and work schedules.

Our experience - plus the research we gathered and condensed into this article - can help you refine your virtual workplace approach. Here are what the most successful remote work teams have in common.

What Successful Remote Teams Have in Common

Decentralized Decision-making

Hierarchies naturally take a different form in the virtual workplace. Managers don't roam the cubicles overseeing productivity and making split-second decisions.

Successful remote teams are notably collaborative. Each team member needs more autonomy to make decisions that formerly rested "above their pay grade."

Source: The Arc Group

Organizations are finding, however, that giving more decision-making power to front-line team members frequently improves overall decision-making. Additionally, managers start thinking differently about how to more efficiently distribute information that helps team members make the best decision.

Immutable Work Logs

In the virtual workplace, team members often pick up where another team member left off. Employees and managers lean heavily upon detailed work logs so as to meet project milestones and provide extra quality assurance.

Thanks to blockchain technology and other productivity apps, employers have a wide array of work log tools to maintain their integrity, increase security, and efficiently distribute critical information.

Data Tracking

In the same vein as work logs, virtual managers are no longer looking subordinates in the eyes (or over their shoulders). Rather, they are consulting hard data.

"Data literacy is a hard-won skill. It does not come easily, even to a generation fluent with apps, emojis, and hashtags. To get there, organizations need to invest in dedicated training and education." - Harvard Business Review

As employees in all departments scale the learning curve required when interpreting analytics, everyone gains more objectivity. Those with a knack for reading and explaining the data enjoy new relevance, and everyone views problems and solutions with greater clarity.

"You don’t need everyone to be an expert, but the real benefit starts to happen when every team has a data power user in it, which can help the team respond to new questions and challenges faster. And that increases the decision-making velocity that’s happening inside the organization." - Wade Foster, CEO of Zapier

The virtual workplace's dependence on data tracking has further aided employee autonomy and decentralized decision-making. Knowing which is the best decision is suddenly more apparent than it used to be to any employee that can "understand the numbers” or easily access someone who can.

Productivity Tech Proficiency

It comes as no surprise that successful remote work teams are proficient with the latest in productivity apps.

What is surprising is the ease with which many non-tech-savvy employees are mastering virtual workspace tools. COVID-19 had the effect of making supervisors and team members more determined to digitally transform.

Specific Communication

Successful remote work teams diligently combat ambiguous feedback and instructions. Without the nonverbal component that one enjoys during an in-person conversation, team members must be specific when conversing with other team members.

Explicitly stating every important detail helps communication prioritize information and ensure understanding among team members. Emails, Slack messages, and even video conferences reach directly for the key bits of information and spell them out in detail.

In Conclusion

Change is stressful. But change can also be an improvement. We predict that many employers will be unwilling to go back to the traditional workplace once they figure out how to maintain successful remote teams. It hardly makes sense to revert to the higher expense, liability, and distractions associated with the pre-pandemic workplace.