Creating a great remote working experience as a team - a human centric approach for managers

A best practice guide for remote team managers and productivity tips for remote team members

By now you might have come across as many remote working articles as there are spices in chicken/paneer tikka masala. A lot I know!

So in this article let´s go a bit deeper to understand why remote working needs to be approached in a slightly special way. If you are looking for some key recommendations you can skip over to the 5 Strategies or the Quick Tips section.

In this article let´s go beyond clichés. Let´s assume that you did not start working from home in your pajamas for the last two weeks when your team lead confirmed the 100% work from home policy. Let´s assume, the last company you worked for was not Buffer Inc or Github (just some really successful random Silicon valley tech companies where people work in hoodies but yeah have 100% remote teams for years). Let´s also assume you are not in Laos or Myanmar sipping your Buddha-bowl at the co-working cafe because you are a pro at being a digital nomad!

So that means you are also a mere mortal like all of us at the team. Then probably the decision to move to work from home 100% was a huge shift for you. Congratulations, you made a big change. You are now a remote worker, and probably part of a distributed team of remote workers. You might not be totally inexperienced at this but you are still slightly unsure if it really works. Right? It probably took you a couple of days to get your desk cleaned up, figure out the work call times, find out where your earphones are and then finally inform your family and kids that you are still working even though you are home(in your pajamas). Phew! Relax, we feel you. You are not alone.

Well the team here at had embraced remote working for quite a long time. I mean look at us – we are a tech platform developed at GIZ that is making waves by matching companies with GIZ projects around the world where innovative solutions are needed, our team is distributed and we had to go remote! So we thought of sharing some of the challenges we faced (just like you) in setting this up and what are some things we did to tackle them.

Remote work or home office in many of our cases has its pros - lots of flexibility, so much saved energy, time and money and a feeling of autonomy how we plan our day and work. But there are also some clear cons - difficultly in collaboration, lack of clarity in tasks and social isolation. Remote work does need a lot of discipline, focus and your own bag of strategies to deal with the challenges. Its a serious shift and we would like to give you a helping hand with this transition. Since the last year, I have been working remotely with the GIZ team, writing my master thesis on remote work and being part of other freelance projects with teammates working from across the globe. These are some of the things I learnt and will share with you:

  1. The top challenges that people usually face while working remotely in their home offices and working away from their teams
  2. How can you as a team lead or a remote team member support each other towards a successful remote experience
  3. Some practical tips from the team´s experiences of distributed teamwork

Top 5 challenges of remote work

1. Reduced boundaries

Many find it extremely difficult to maintain a separation of work and life once they start working remotely. Often in remote work, we end up oscillating between the two extremes of either being extremely unproductive or being over the top engrossed in delivering projects, so much that we forget our lunches or skip that workout that we had planned. Sometimes being “allowed” to work from home is taken as a privilege in companies and we strive extra hard to compensate with our availability round the clock.

2. Lack of team awareness

A quick chat at your colleague´s desk that could have solved an issue now needs to be sent over instant message. Sometimes we end up feeling sad if the reply sounded “rude” or didn't have a smiley :) We start missing the coffee machine chats sharing how our weekend was and how we were so stressed when dropping the kids at the Kita took much more time than we thought. It is so easy to misinterpret feelings through emails or online chats. Research shows that lack of mutual understanding and awareness leads to larger communication issues in dispersed teams.

Researchers have shown that complete team awareness is actually an awareness of the informal, social, structural and workspace contexts of team members. Remote work cuts away the visual and audio cues which human brains need to get the complete context of a situation. It makes it hard to understand and feel the frame of mind in which your colleague is today if we don't see them.

3. Social Isolation

Sustained periods of not working together with your team and the lack of informal conversations often make remote members feel isolated from the team and the company. As humans, we crave interactions and appreciation of our work and presence.

4. Distractions

If you have a family or have kids, home office is difficult. If you live solo, its not easy either. A chat with your flatmate, a nice cozy coffee on the sofa with some Spotify on the speakers and the Netflix show is just a tap away. At the moment, many of us are expected to suddenly shift to work from home, in spite of not having the appropriate workspace, training, and setup needed for productive work.

5. Clarity of Communication

When we share information and tasks, some parts are explicit, some are implicit. Sometimes we “assume” that the other person understands all that we intend to convey. That could be a huge mistake in remote work scenarios where the information flow is already restricted and limited. Although the remote and distributed teamwork is filled with challenges, there are many solutions and fixes. Simple rituals can create a big impact. As Cora, Product Manager at puts it - "the magic about remote work is to not try to make people change their habits”.

5 strategies to make remote work effective and human-centric

1. Understand human needs

I conducted in-depth “empathy interviews” to understand the core human needs of remote workers and remote team members. Everyone has a different style of work but here is what I found what remote workers need from their managers:

  • Quick feedback - about the work packages that they deliver
  • Appreciation and visibility of their work
  • Managers to be “accessible”
  • Mentorship and coaching
  • Sense of belonging to the team
  • The feeling of being trusted and needed by the team
  • Equal information and overview of the bigger goals of the project
  • An overview of the progress of the whole team and the status of tasks
  • To be able to fairly distribute tasks in the team
  • To be able to trust individuals with tasks and be assured that it would be executed on time and correctly. Many managers strongly associate on time delivery of work with trust.
  • To create a momentum of work happening and progress being visible.

The needs of remote team managers were:

  • An overview of the progress of the whole team and status of tasks
  • To be able to fairly distribute tasks in the team
  • To be able to trust individuals with tasks and be assured that it would be executed on time and correctly. Many managers strongly associate on time delivery of work with trust.
  • To create a momentum of work happening and progress being visible.

By understanding these needs of the person on the “other side” we can make sure that we make it part of our work and approach towards remote team work.

2. Set up a check-in and check-out ritual

The coffee chats or the walk after lunch are important rituals for teams. Sooner or later, we start to miss that in our home office settings. The best idea is to continue them in some format. Check-ins are a deliberate intentional way to create the space for the members of the team to share how they feel, what mood they bring to the team today or what has been their biggest challenge recently or get inspiration from our teammates. Creating space for honest conversations about successes, challenges and struggles is a great way to build an environment where people feel `psychologically safe´. This is one of the most impactful things to affect individuals and teams positively. Positive emotions of trust, openness, and playfulness can release hormones that make us creative and open-minded. Project or component leaders can set up individual check-ins or team check-ins where everyone gets to come together and share good moments. These check-ins create a sense of belonging for team members which recent research has shown to be very important to counter the isolation feeling in remote work. The importance of informal conversations for team success cannot be highlighted enough. In fact in research it was demonstrated that teams communicated spontaneously in addition to formal meetings performed more successfully than those which used only formal planned communications.

3. Create a framework for communication

If you have not done already, then create an official remote working launch meet. Get your team to huddle together, we recommend having a video call and communicate – e.g. Guys, we are in a new territory, and let´s discuss how we could set up the best way to collaborate virtually? Let´s discuss who prefers what.

Firstly, in remote teams, its important to keep the conversations very clear and explicit without leaving gaps for implicit information to be misinterpreted. In the military this is known as “command intent”. Command intent is an explanation of the purpose of a task, the desired results and how exactly will the operations proceed to get to the desired results. If you work with intercultural teams its even more important not to leave any gaps for individual interpretation as there could be many cultural and contextual meanings to every communication.

Secondly, on the technical side of communication, it's crucial to clarify the modes and timings. At GIZ, we have the option of using emails, MS Team chats, calls and Skype for Business video calls. There are ways in which we like to use the tools and then there are times during the day at which we are most comfortable to use them as individuals. All of this should be discussed in the initial stages to align and create a framework for communication where everyone can share how they like to communicate. As much as its important to create information equality and keep as much information as public as possible, its also important to find the right medium(s).

If the technology allows we recommend to always switch to video calls, as its a much richer experience. Once you get comfortable with it, the calls are a lot more fun and the visual cues make it easier to understand each other and their responses. It helps us avoid the feeling of isolation that is surely going to crop up once in a while. It is also recommended to quickly call your teammate if things are becoming too fuzzy in instant chats.

To set up these protocols, managers can get the team together and collectively decide the time blocks for group chats, “me” times and feedback calls etc. Conversations like “Hey, normally in the first hours of the day, I like to get my emails done and some focused work, and in the afternoon I am available for calls and chats” or “I like to have a quick check-in before beginning my day” are very useful to set the team communication protocols.

4. Create Information equality and a knowledge hub

To create a feeling of momentum that makes teamwork fun we try to keep a very updated Kanban board. We tag our tasks and subtasks in these cards. We mark them under to-do, doing and done and also tag them as PR, Product, growth, etc. With this, our project managers can get quick overviews about the status of various tasks and the tentative deadlines and progress. We also created a knowledge hub where all our collaborative documents are clustered and made accessible to everyone.

At, we use Microsoft Teams for most of our information exchange and collaboration, we have created messaging channels that work for us:

  1. General announcement channels
  2. Smaller task force channels
  3. Team meeting channel - where we announce meetings and co-prepare our agenda before group calls.
  4. The Urgent channel - for obviously urgent stuff
  5. A “done-Yay!” channel - which we created because we wanted to create transparency around what is getting done and to celebrate our wins.

5. Manage conflicts proactively and create hope:

What can be most challenging for remote project or team leaders is handling crises. Engaging personally, careful listening and creating a space for mutual feedback are great ways to deal with individual issues. One of the interviewees who works for Salesforce (CRM) -Berlin said that the best example of leadership that his remote manager showed was when towards the end of the month the whole sales team was stressed with reaching their targets and their team manager got everyone on a video call and created a sense of hope and told them to take it easy.

You might feel wow, this is quite intense. But a lot of the points are applicable to normal teamwork as well. Its
just that lack of being physically together in the same space adds an extra layer of complexity. To make it easier I compiled some of the top tips from veteran remote workers.

Quick- tips

to help you personally to have a good experience working from home:

  • Don´t work in pajamas. Get into your corporate armor to get into your work mode. Pretend you are going to the office.
  • Create rituals - for yourself and for your team.
  • Create a designated space - a desk with good height, ergonomic chair, some natural or good light
  • Set an anchor when you want to do focused work. Either your favorite warm drink or a piano playlist. Find what works for you.
  • Communicate and don´t go underground. Have regular check-ins, send short updates, maybe your weekly goals, wins of the day, etc.
  • Don´t neglect health - create boundaries - don´t miss your breakfast, lunches and exercise rituals.
  • If you are working from home with your family and partners then share how your day looks like and when you need silent spaces.
  • Create structures and boundaries for communication times or focus times. Take scheduled breaks.
  • Escalate communication for clarity - if its unclear in text, pick up the phone or make a video call. Resolve issues fast.
  • Don´t keep people waiting if they need some information from you.
  • Create a hub for documents and knowledge base. Make it accessible to everyone.
  • Team leaders let your people know how and when can your team reach you. Share some open hours.
  • Give and take feedback frequently.
  • Block the websites that often distract you using a website blocker (I use SelfControlApp for macOS) and work in blocks of time (I use a Pomodoro timer app called Flow for macOS)
  • Keep a definitive finish time as you would in your normal office days.

Links: Remote working tips | Online tools and apps for remote working

If you have more ideas, share it with our community and tell us your remote working secrets too
Stay healthy folks!

Saptarshi Baksi
Product Innovation and Marketing consultant – | Design Thinker | Linkedin

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