I recently spoke with Michael Pryor, one of the founders of Trello, about what it takes to keep a widely dispersed workforce effective, productive, and engaged.
 
If you don’t know about Trello yet (despite there being 25 million registered users), it’s a collaboration tool that uses moveable tiles (“cards”) much in the same way you might use sticky notes to visually map project tasks. The goal is to keep your team aligned, organized, and productive no matter where they’re physically located.
 
While the tool itself helps to address one very practical element of managing a remote workforce, business owners have much left on their plate when it comes to building and maintaining a highly engaged yet widely dispersed team.
 
This was a learning process for Trello, too; initially, the team adapted to remote work out of pure necessity when one of their key developers had to move across the country. Today, 65% of the team is remote, and the company continues to attract and retain some exceptional talent.
 
Here’s what they’re doing to set their team up for success.
 

1. Make sure your remote workers have an “office.”

To be effective, remote workers will need to have an office space in their homes with a desk and chair and door that can be shut when they need to focus. If a new hire doesn’t have the needed furniture already, the company will provide it. If they don’t have the physical space, the company will pay for them to work out of a shared space close to their home.
 
The idea is to not only to give your employees a quiet and functional space, but to make sure there’s at least some sort of separation between their home life and their work life.
 

2. Keep the playing field even.

Do what you can to avoid making any of your employees feel like the odd man out.
 
When you have your regular all-staff meeting (hint hint), instead of having your remote workers join a video conference that shows your full conference room and them off to the side, have every member of your team join the video conference individually and mute all but one microphone. The same goes for any group meeting.
 
Besides eliminating the visual separation, this setup also allows remote workers to read individual facial expressions, find an appropriate point to interject in the conversation, and — more practically — hear those who speak quietly.
 

3. Be explicit.

If you’re going to be communicating with your team in writing, that writing needs to leave no room for misinterpretation. Clear instructions, clear goals, and clear progress markers are key. Who is responsible for what tasks? How are they going to document their progress? How is their contribution going to be evaluated? What does successful completion look like?
 

4. Create a collaborative space.

To take this a step further, progress should be as transparent as it is concrete.
 
Don’t let everyone’s work be siloed in their inboxes; harness communication tools like Slack (which integrates fully with Trello) and persistent chat rooms to keep team communication centralized and accessible. On top of creating a really valuable knowledgebase, this will prevent your teammates from feeling isolated.
 

5. Simulate “hall bumps.”

There’s real value in those spontaneous conversations that result from bumping into someone in the hallway, by the watercooler, or wherever. You can encourage these interactions by:

  • Keeping the video conference running after a meeting concludes so your team can interact
  • Having a dedicated virtual space where staff will drop important tidbits of information that you might otherwise overhear in an office environment
  • Optional meetings (they call them “coffee talks” at Trello) where one staff member teaches their coworkers something of value

These specific tactics might not work for your company, but take the time to find what does.
 

Bringing it all together

Ultimately, the key to keeping your remote workers engaged is to not only provide them with the right technology and tools to be productive, but to make sure your corporate culture transcends the physical limitations of your office.
 
Be deliberate in your approach, be creative in your execution, and be thoughtful in your refinement.
 
And from there, be wildly successful.
 

 

As originally published in the American City Business Journals

 


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