This article is an excerpt from Robert C. Pozen and Alexandra Samuel’s new book “REMOTE, INC.: How to Thrive at Work…Wherever You Are” and is printed here with permission from Harper Business.
A smarter model is what we call “punctuated collaboration”: an approach that finds a middle ground between the efficiency of solo work and the many benefits of collaboration. Working as a team engages diversity of perspectives and knowledge, builds trust and relationship among colleagues, and builds consensus and buy-in around the outcome. Even if you could write a better report entirely on your own, collaboration is the best way to rally your teammates around the result.
The secret is to make collaboration specific, focused, and time-limited, rather than accepting it as our default mode for getting work done. When you work in an office, collaboration may indeed be the most effective option, but in part that’s because it’s so hard to do focused work when you’re constantly interrupted. Once you shift to working from home, you can make the most of solo time, and then use focused check-ins to advance your project or deliverable to the next stage.
You will be most effective at shifting the balance of work from collaboration to solo work if you can propose specific plans that get your team to the finish line with fewer meetings and better results. Here are some common scenarios in which distributed teams default to meetings, but where you can suggest punctuated collaboration: that is, distributing tasks among the team so that people can get more done on their own, with check-ins at specific intervals and with clear success metrics.
Instead of Daily Meetings to Plan Your Corporate Retreat…
- Start by creating a project plan that delineates all the tasks involved in organizing the retreat; then group these based on roles or where different people excel.
- Next, use an online project dashboard to assign tasks and request regular updates on progress toward each task.
- Ask each person to maintain a separate list of questions/items for discussion by the whole team.
- Assign a project manager to track progress on each task against deadline and collect questions for team discussion as the basis for meeting agendas. Any questions that require input from only one or two people go to those people via message or email.
- Post updates on the project dashboard so everyone can see status and key info in one place.
- Reserve weekly calls for discussing items that actually require group input or decision-making
Instead of a Series of Calls to Brainstorm New Product or Campaign Ideas…
- Set up a standing suggestion box (for example, an online form, Google Doc, or wiki) where team members can collect ideas for the next product or campaign, with every idea attributed to its source. (Credit is one reason people save their ideas for meetings.) An online suggestion box also creates room for less vocal employees.
- Dig into the suggestion box when it’s time to start a new initiative: the project lead collects existing ideas or solicits new ones, which they compile or categorize in an online document (like a Google Doc or spreadsheet).
- Invite team members to comment on the ideas in the initial brainstorming file, and add other ideas that are inspired by the starting point.
- Review the document to identify the most promising ideas, and then convene the team to review the top ideas and arrive at a list of top options over the course of two or three virtual meetings.
Instead of Daily Work Sprints as a Team…
- Set team goals for the week, month, or product cycle.
- Schedule manager check-ins at key points in the process—with deadlines and decision points for each meeting.
- Set up a drop-in virtual meeting room, coworking message channel, phone call, or playlist for team members who like the feeling of ambient collegiality—but make this optional, so people drop in to the coworking space only if they actively want to be there.
- Empower individual team members to work in pairs or small groups as needed, rather than convening the entire team.
In some organizations, these strategies of punctuated collaboration are already the norm. But there are many teams that spend the majority of their day on video calls, just because they’re in the habit of managing by meeting; such meetings often include many agenda items that don’t actually require every single person on the call. These are the teams that need to adapt their remote work strategies so that people mainly work solo or in pairs, and group or team calls are scheduled only when they’re really necessary.