So far, yet so close: working in healthy and successful remote teams

Image: David Mulder

Working in a remote team is an ongoing learning experience for HURIDOCS. As a largely remote team, we don’t see each other often, and one of the few occasions when most of our team gathers in one place is during the Internet Freedom Festival in Valencia, Spain.

So at this year’s festival, we took the opportunity to kick off a wider discussion about working in remote teams, with Friedhelm to facilitate the conversation. We were very excited to see the session turn into a lively discussion among its participants from a variety of organisations and groups. Drawing from our real-life experiences to identify common challenges and solutions, we left with new perspectives and a fresh insight. You can take a look at the notes taken by participants here

This blog post is a summary of some of the highlights from our discussion.

Having team members based in the communities and locations within which our partners work has become a natural model for our work and is also represented in our organisational values. One important HURIDOCS value is agility – we believe that problem-solving for human rights change agents requires in-depth understanding of people, goals, and contexts. Alongside agility is the value of collaboration – we co-create effective solutions with human rights organisations and it’s much easier to do that when you are closeby.

“At HURIDOCS, we have grown to be a distributed team, now in more than ten locations across five continents. This has been great for us, the team is more diverse and rooted in different communities, while united by a common purpose. That being said, working largely remotely required us to change the way we work, how we communicate and how we stay motivated and connected with each other.” – HURIDOCS’ Executive Director Friedhelm Weinberg.

Undoubtedly, with the help of new communication tools and innovative collaborative platforms, working in partially or entirely distributed teams allows for a whole new level of outreach, collaboration and impact. Yet, for many working in the human rights field, adapting to remote work culture comes with challenges.

Abundant communication can strengthen engagement and inclusion

One thing that comes with working in a shared physical office space is a sense of inclusion. But what happens when instead of in-person conversations, the closest you get to know someone and to interact with them is through a video chat on your computer or a messaging app on your phone? Many participants agreed one of the major challenges is engaging and including those working remotely in the organisation’s work as much as possible.

For many people, abundant communication, or what some called “over-communication,” between those based in the office and remote workers made them feel more included. Some participants said what helped them was choosing communication channels that were most convenient and efficient for everyone.

Regularly shift meeting times to accommodate a range of time-zones

For many people, being based in different time zones is one of the biggest challenges affecting day-to-day communications between team members. Sometimes, while one person is wrapping up their working hours, another person is just starting their day. When the time difference between team members is significant, some staff members stay very late or wake up very early to partake in team meetings and calls. So how should remote teams approach this planning in a way that would not leave some people left out. 

Even though this kind of problem is inevitable, especially in teams with larger remote staff, there is a solution: regularly shifting meeting times would balance the responsibility among all team members to adjust their schedules accordingly while offering more flexibility for those in disadvantaged time zones.

Set boundaries between work hours and personal time

Inbox getting filled, phone buzzing during evening hours… For those who work from home, it might become especially difficult to detach from work. Even though not being tied to the 9-5 office schedule  allows for great flexibility in one’s daily time management, being around your computer with access to work email and chats does not create the same feeling as leaving all the work behind in the office. So some people tend to fall into the trap of becoming available during late evening hours. There were even cases when people became anxious over not checking their emails regularly.

Some useful tips to ensure the life-work balance range from turning off push notifications to not checking your email past a certain hour, adding the out-of-office hours to the calendar to help others know when the work day of people in a different time zones starts and till when they are available, and not responding until the next day (unless something needs to be urgently addressed or dealt with).

Setting strict boundaries between work hours and personal time is an important priority when adjusting to remote work schedule. Managers have the responsibility to model behaviour for the team and clearly communicate that it is not their expectation of remote workers to be available all the time.

Last, but not least, to contribute to healthier work-life balance for your team you can talk more about the life outside of work and remind staff members they can and should take their time off.

Be aware and open to conversations about different work cultures  

As remote teams become more and more diverse, international employees and their managers need to navigate and adapt to different work cultures. Challenges might be cultural and linguistic, as many non-native speakers take time to get used to certain linguistic nuances in daily communication. It is essential to be aware of these dynamics for both managers and new employees. Having an intentional conversation about work culture could help clarify expectations within the organisation and help avoid misunderstandings along the way.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of challenges facing remote teams today, but rather a kick-starter for a conversation that should be continued. Please share any additional advice in the comments below!

Lastly, here is a few useful resources shared at the session.

  • “Asynchronous decision-making: Helping remote teams succeed” by Bertrand Delacretaz, a Principal Scientist with the Adobe Research team in Basel, Switzerland. In this piece, Delacretaz is exploring how geographically and culturally distributed software teams can make decisions more efficiently using the asynchronous decision-making strategy.  
  • The young feminist fund: FRIDA’s working style and principles include a list of tools and practical recommendations based in their years of “virtual office” experience, and more resources to support remote working and self care. FRIDA prioritizes collective well-being, communications (with emojis 🙂) and collectively monitoring of results to keep up with the challenges that come along with working remotely.
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