Secrets of Success for Remote Work

May 31, 2022

Best Practices for Virtual Teams

In part 2 of this series, let's review some best practices for remote work. Here, we will let current research be our guide. I will also share some thoughts from my personal experience. 

Secrets of Success for Remote Work

1. Be intentional about staying connected.

I'm lucky to have a group of coaching colleagues that I also consider good friends. Over the years we have coached and mentored each other, celebrated each other's success, and supported each other through tough times.

Such deep, collegial relationships are not just a "nice to have." Humans are social animals that need contact with other humans for our emotional health. We especially need this during times of stress. Through the Covid-19 pandemic, social support protected healthcare workers against depression.

If you are a remote team leader: 

  • Make time for relationships. Make a list of team members and stakeholders at your company and schedule one-on-one video meetings on a regular basis. Don't set a business agenda. Use the time to get to know people, learn about their life outside of work, and what's important to them. You may think this is a waste of time -- trust me, it isn't. Relationships build trust; trust spurs motivation and creates the climate for creativity. 
  • Use technology for relationship-building. We've all learned how to use platforms like Zoom and Microsoft Teams over the past couple of years. Conversation channels that provide multiple conversation threads (e.g. MS TeamsSlack) allow leaders to create both work-related and non-work related channels. Consider using applications like Donut that randomly pair team members so they can get to know each other. You can get even more creative and use quizzes, group challenges, or friendly competitions to build team camaraderie and morale.
  • Begin meetings with relationship-building. Yes, I know time is precious. But take 5 minutes at the beginning of the team meeting to build relationships. This can be as simple as going around the virtual room to ask each person to share one thing they did over the weekend, etc. Here are some great icebreaker questions from

If you are a remote worker: 

  • Make time for relationships. Meet for coffee (either in-person or virtually) and spend time in conversation. 
  • Reach out regularly. Schedule regular time on your calendar for networking and relationship building.
  • Introverted? No problem. So am I, actually. I don't even try to socialize like an extrovert. Instead, I send emails and texts and plan low-key, small gatherings with the people I care about. It's amazing how well most people respond to a simple message like, "I was just thinking about you the other day. How have you been?"

2. Be intentional about building trust and resolving conflict.

The relationship-building strategies above are also key to building trust. And trust is the key to diffusing conflicts before they have a chance to brew. James Citrin and Darlene DeRosa put it this way in their book, Leading at a Distance: "If people do not have a solid, trusting relationship with a colleague, they are much less likely to proactively address potential conflict."

They offer some warning signs that trust may be dangerously low: 

  • Team members focus on "I" instead of "we." Without a sense of teamwork and mutual support, everyone starts looking out for themselves.
  • Conversations are strictly business. Communication experts tell us that there are 5 levels of communication based on our level of intimacy and trust with the other party. If conversation consistently stays at a superficial level, it may indicate a lack of trust.
  • Team members are building silos. When subgroups begin to form, this may indicate a lack of accountability and trust between individuals.
  • Team members are pointing fingers. The "blame game" starts when no one feels they can have open, honest communication about problems on the team.
  • There are conflicts that need fixing. When no one feels that they can bring issues up, unresolved conflict will continue to brew under the surface.

In the middle of a conflict that needs resolution? You may be interested in reading this.

3. Be intentional about keeping your work and personal life separate and balanced.

After working from home for many years, here are my best tips:

  • Get ready for work. I get it. One of the main advantages of working from home is staying in our joggers or pjs and being able to skip shaving or even combing our hair sometimes. But here's what can happen: since our brains never get a signal that we "got ready for work" at the start of the day, they may have a hard time recognizing when to leave work behind at the end. So, yeah, it's great to work in cozy pjs, but not if you and I end up working 12-14 hours in them. I'm not saying that you can't relax your morning routine a little. Just make sure that you do establish a routine of some sort.  
  • Set office hours. Work has a tendency to fill whatever time we give it. To set time boundaries around your work, start and end work at specific times every day. Resist thoughts like, "Oh, I can keep working this evening or over the weekend if I need to." Make a standing appointment to do something else at the end of the work day. My husband plans his daily walk to the gym at 5:30 every day. That forces him out of work mode and into personal mode. 
  • Define your work space. Work has a tendency to fill whatever space we give it, too. To set space boundaries around your work, designate specific space in your home that is used for work. If at all possible, use a room with a door that you can close at the end of the work day. My home office has a glass door and glass transepts on either side - this allows my family to see when I'm at work. But since my desk faces away from the door, I am not usually distracted by outside movement. If you don't have a separate room, you can get more creative about creating a "work bubble." In his book Indistractable, Nir Eyal describes a "concentration crown" - a headpiece with flashing LED lights - that his wife wears when she is hard at work and doesn't want to be interrupted. If you don't want to be quite so fashion-forward,  you can print out signs with green and red lights to let people know when you can be disturbed or not. Also, if at all possible, do not bring work into family space or the bedroom. When your brain sees work-related stuff, it will automatically think that you are in a work space and will put you in "work mode." You can use this mental trick to your advantage when you enter your designated work area, but don't encourage your brain to keep tripping this switch when you are in other parts of your home. 
  • Turn off work notifications on your phone. Set personal policies for work-related emails, phone calls, and texts. Let people know how to contact you for true emergencies. Otherwise, do not respond outside of the time/space limits you set.  
  • Make and keep appointments with yourself and your family. If we let it, work can easily displace other life priorities. To avoid this, put time for self-care, dates with your partner, and playdates with your children on your calendar. Give these appointments every bit as much respect and consideration as your work appointments. And if you can't make a personal life appointment, don't just cancel it - RESCHEDULE.

4. Be intentional about career development for yourself and others.

According to a recent survey by Deloitte and Fortune Analytics, CEOs are investing considerable resources in the top factors driving the Great Resignation: flexibility and compensation. They are also reviewing their management practices and offering more training and development.  

Providing ongoing professional development helps workers stay focused, motivated, and performing at high levels. It also sends the signal, "We are investing in you because we care about you."

If you are a remote team leader: Be aware that "sage on the stage" lectures don't necessarily translate well in the virtual environment. Look into replacing them with interactive, online development courses. 

Virtual training was the first recommendation in a recent Forbes article. Another recommendation is to offer stretch assignments: look for unique and interesting stretch goals that may key into team members' values and allow them to grow professionally. According to industry research reported by the Harvard Business Review and Korn Ferry, stretch assignments are consistently at the top of best practices for professional development.

5. Be intentional about keeping yourself and others motivated.

From a psychological standpoint, motivation has two parts: 1) fixing our eyes on our purpose, and 2) keeping them there. 

Purpose is a powerful motivator. Try leading virtual team members through a "so that..." exercise, for example:  "I will stay motivated to do this task so that my team can hit their weekly software development that the next software release is completed on that our company continues to provide customers with the best software tools available."

The closer we can tie our internal motives and values to the work we do, the more we will persevere in the face of stress and crisis. Still, when we feel overwhelmed or face a challenge that we don't know how to handle, our energy and motivation may start to drag.

Team leaders can help by creating a culture of open communication, recognition, and support. Here are some specific suggestions from Citrin and DeRosa:

  • Use one-on-one meetings to understand the motivations of each team member. As far as possible, align their work responsibilities to those internal values and motives. 
  • Use the beginning or end of team meetings to recognize and reward successes
  • Bake short-term wins into the workflow. Communicate those wins often and using multiple venues (e.g., email, Slack, video calls, etc.).
  • Communicate early and often. Be intentional about asking team members for their input. They will remain more engaged and motivated if they participate in decision-making and know that their voice matters.
  • Create a psychologically safe place for concerns and challenges. Think about ways to let team members help each other, e.g. partnering them up into virtual sub-teams or pods to foster each worker's virtual supprt system.

About the author 

Pamela Coburn-Litvak

Pam is a neuroscientist, author, speaker, and certified executive coach. Her research articles have been published in scientific journals including Neuroscience and Neurobiology of Learning and Behavior.

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