The new normal: four tips on cultivating team collaboration

Sure, establishing a more productive work-from-home routine can drive positive dividends in making your day more rewarding. But your productivity extends beyond personal strategies. We are all still part of a larger team, so collaborating with your colleagues from the comfort of your new home office space can sometimes feel awkward or uncomfortable.

Your once harmonious (and maybe even enjoyable) meetings are now disjointed. With meetings occurring online, sidebar conversations and inside jokes have become a thing of the past; conversations can feel disorganized and scattered; maybe you all speak at once, or no one speaks at all. There are interruptions, people go unheard, or perhaps there is that one dominant voice.

The worst part in all this? When video conferencing isn’t used (or cameras are turned off), words that were once well received are now enormously open to misinterpretation. You are unable to sense the energy, emotions or fear in the room. I like to think of it as “the smell.” And on conference calls, that smell is often undiscernible. 

Did you know that nonverbal communication is the single most powerful form of communication? Nonverbal communication includes elements like facial expressions, body language, use of space, and gestures. When these are not visually evident, our true communication is compromised. I may have complete control of my voice and my words, but you won’t see me tapping my fingers or rolling my eyes. Even the tiniest facial expressions or physical moments, reveal what is truly happening internally.

The good news is that multiple opportunities exist to improve communication and cultivate brilliant team collaboration in our new work-from-home environment.

Revisit (or Create) Team Working Agreements

Shifting from in-person meetings to video calls may feel disconcerting, and many teams encounter a transitional period, while trying to acclimate. To make for a calmer, more pleasant adjustment, now is the perfect time to revisit or create team working agreements.

Think of team working agreements as “house rules.” These are guidelines that will define how a team behaves, interacts, and achieves their goals. Working agreements are important because it gives all team members a template for what is expected – which is vital when meeting virtually.

When creating working agreements, consider all the dysfunctional and disruptive things you’ve experienced in remote meetings. This could include environment-based disruptions (e.g., dogs barking, kids screaming), late arrivals, multi-tasking, or inadequate meeting facilitation. In these instances, what rules can your team put into place?

Some examples may include:

  • Everyone is on mute unless they are speaking
  • All calls start 5 minutes after the hour, to give participants a break between meetings
  • We are “present” and focused during the meeting
  • Cameras on, especially if you’re speaking

While capturing these agreements, discuss team accountability. Keep in mind, these agreements should actually be followed and not just documented. 

Turn those Cameras ON

Earlier we discussed the importance of nonverbal communication. This can’t be stressed enough! Until we are physically in the same location, the only way we can decipher one another’s subtle facial expressions, body language or gestures is by turning our cameras on.

The obvious must be stated here: No one cares what you look like on camera (except for you). I promise.

Your colleagues aren’t snickering at your unbrushed hair or tattered hoodie. Instead, they will experience a sense of connection, of partnership. No longer are they speaking to a black void, unaware of how their words are landing, wondering if you’re listening, if you care. Seeing your face intent and smiling is what connects us as humans. It is what unifies us. And we need connection now more than ever.

Here’s something cool: several online meeting tools like Zoom and Microsoft Teams provide the option to switch out your background image, which makes for engaging conversation (and hides what’s going on behind you). Instead of that blank gray wall, you can virtually transport yourself to an abandoned street in a cyberpunk city or smack dab in the middle of a Bob Ross-style painting.

If you’re still feeling less than par, Zoom has implemented a feature called “Touch Up My Appearance” which evens out your skin tone, making you look “dewy and well-rested.” (Click here for additional Zoom tips and tricks.)

Lastly, set up your device or camera so that it has a clear, unobstructed view of you. Don’t sit either too far from or too close to the camera and adjust it to be at eye level; this makes it appear that you are speaking directly to your colleagues.

Keep the Meeting Flowing

There should be one person designated as the meeting conductor. This person is responsible for facilitating the flow of the session and staying on topic and on time. A skilled facilitator will make sure everyone is heard and feels included in the conversation. They will manage the dominant voices and encourage the quieter ones to be heard. They will also obtain consensus when necessary and bring the group back if the conversation digresses.

Facilitators sometimes find it difficult to get a word in edgewise – especially on remote meetings when the conversation gets extremely lively. One creative option is to use handheld signals (like this MeetingMinders toolset) to provide visual indicators when a meeting veers off course. These are essential for facilitation, especially if a meeting has taken a nosedive down a rabbit hole or has been monopolized by an overzealous team member. If this happens, simply choose your “weapon of choice” and hold it to the camera to refocus the room.

Another underutilized, yet critical technique is “timeboxing,” which is a simple time management technique that involves allocating a fixed time for an activity or discussion and then meeting that timeframe. Using tools available online makes tracking and adhering to the timebox relatively easy and entertaining. If you share your screen, then the time left is evident to everyone, which is a polite reminder to wrap up the conversation.  

Of course, no one wants to be the “time police” barking out orders to stop talking once the time bomb explodes. Instead, a complementary technique is to incorporate Roman voting. This gives the power to the group to decide whether to move on or continue the discussion.

At the end of the timebox, ask the group if they would like to continue discussion with a simple thumbs up or thumbs down. This allows you, as the facilitator, to get a sense of whether you need to add more time or move on, without being the evil time-keeping villain.

Use Collaboration Tools

There’s nothing worse than minimum engagement during remote meetings. Typically, this occurs when one person is doing all the talking – which leads to observers tuning out, rather than participants turning in. To increase team engagement and interaction, try using an online visual collaboration tool such as Miro or Mural, whenever possible. These tools are incredible at helping distributed teams work effectively together, from brainstorming with digital sticky notes to planning and managing workflows … all in real time! Consider these tools as your virtual thinking canvases that allow you to solve challenges by collaborating visually.

Both tools are intuitive and allow for creative interactivity and collective partnership. However, these can be slightly pricey. If you’re on a tighter budget, try Google Docs as an alternative. With their editing and styling tools, built-in templates, and real-time collaboration features, these tools allow teams to work on a project simultaneously and track their edits along the way.

Keeping both yourself and your teams more productive while working from home only adds stability and familiarity to our new normal. As you continue to find your way and enhance your approach, we hope these four new ideas will tighten your team’s communication game. With these tips and tools, you can put yourself and your team on the path to cultivating brilliant team collaboration.

Be on the lookout for part five in this series, which will provide tips and tricks for remote team building.

Learn more about Kimberly here.