Millions of people in the US are now working remotely to stay safe from the COVID-19 pandemic. Boardroom brainstorming sessions over coffee and bagels have been replaced by Zoom or Slack.
I've been an advocate for remote work for as long as I can remember. While our current work-from-home experience may not be a first choice for everyone, it has shown that we can do it. We are more agile, adaptable, and resilient than we give ourselves credit for.
My work as a learning and development strategist teaches people how to collaborate and problem solve. The same principles that apply to in-person problem-solving apply to teams working remotely. We just need to incorporate the right technology.
Read Toptal’s Suddenly Remote Playbook here.
Below are three practices for collaborating remotely:
1. Have empathy. The foundation of good collaboration is empathy. It’s all about understanding the end user—whoever it is that you're trying to help—whether you’re solving a problem for a customer or an internal function. The first step is understanding the behavior you’re trying to change. What's the impact you’ll measure?
For example, if the team is brainstorming ways to improve customer service skills, ask the team, “What are the specific skills we want to exhibit? Is it active listening, conflict resolution skills, or response time?” Understand—from the perspective of your customer —the skills that are missing and solve for those.
Collaboration also requires understanding your team members. We’re all experiencing a new way of working right now. Have patience and offer grace. Practically speaking, schedule collaboration meetings when you know colleagues aren’t juggling homeschooling or child care responsibilities at the same time.
2. Select a facilitator. We’ve all felt the frustration of 10 people on a video call speaking at once. Then, realizing the mistake, everyone falls silent. Starts and stops like these—common when we can’t read each other’s in-person body language—are kryptonite to any kind of creative problem-solving.
Appointing a facilitator for a collaboration session will not only clarify who has the floor, but he or she will also make sure the team sticks to a clear agenda (of which everyone should receive a copy in advance).
Every brainstorming session has its share of dominating personalities, introverts, and people whose minds are someplace else. The distortions and delays inherent in virtual collaboration make it even more difficult to ensure that everyone on the team has an opportunity to contribute. Facilitators help by seeking ideas from the quiet people and preventing any one person from monopolizing the conversation.
I like to begin remote collaboration sessions by asking my coworkers to brainstorm individually for the first 5-10 minutes and come up with several ideas. The facilitator can then sort people with similar ideas into small groups and ask them to develop those ideas together. Zoom, Microsoft Teams, or GoToMeeting all have breakout rooms which are ideal for structuring sessions this way. Then, the facilitator brings the team back together, each sub-group shares what conclusions they reached, and we collectively work through the ideas.
3. Think inside the box. Using different constraints when brainstorming is an effective way to encourage creative problem-solving. For example, ask your team to spend 10 minutes trying to solve the problem as though they had a budget of $10 million. Then, ask them to spend another 10 minutes trying to solve the same problem as though they had a budget of $1. Giving vastly different constraints forces people to look differently at both the problem and the solution.
I also recommend inviting people to the session who are not part of your core team. Often, brainstorming sessions consist of the same people we work with day to day. We already have preconceived notions of what will and won't work. To break free of these biases, you need people who don't have experience with the problem or with the team. People with a fresh perspective may be able to shed light on a solution you hadn't considered.
This is a challenging period for many businesses. At the same time, we are all learning, growing, and exploring. It’s a wonderful opportunity for improvement.
As remote work becomes the new normal, Staffing.com has created a dedicated space to offer insights and tips. On our Rise of Remote pages, you’ll find The Suddenly Remote Playbook, articles, podcasts, and live streaming videos with experts in the world of remote work. Visit and subscribe to stay connected.