How to Bring Teams Together in Remote Work Environments

Remote, cross-functional, and co-located teams come with pitfalls, such as lack of contact and demanding challenges from family stresses. Winning strategies include establishing strong team relationships, and developing gameplans to hold your remote workers accountable. The goal is to develop strong trust, establish clear structures, and manage social relationships — not to mention, observe for specific behaviours. 

Here are three tips for managing, understanding, and developing strong remote, cross-functional, and co-located team environments. 

Manage Your Teams 

The difference between remote work and traditional office settings is just that — it’s different. Projects are different. Meetings are different. It even makes for different teams. At the same time, it also calls for a different approach to maintain, and even encourage, higher levels of productivity1. One of the benefits of remote work is the smaller team size. Teams that can split into smaller groups offers opportunities for easier communication — and less time standing around the water cooler. 

Working in remote environments does come with its rewards. You get to sleep longer, there is no commute, the kitchen is always open, and pyjama pants are the new normal2. It also advocates for transparency in communication regarding best practices in video conferencing and shorter meetings. This extra time, if used properly, adds the benefit of thought and ability to see yourself as a part of the whole and connected on the bigger picture3

That being said, social isolation is a real issue for remote workers. Add a global pandemic on top of that, throw in some family stresses and disrupted schedules, and you have the perfect formula for acute distress — that could potentially only get worse4. Address this challenge and schedule more face-to-face interactions with individual video meetings. Build stronger relationships with trust and even better communication. When given a chance, offer flexibility and understanding, such as extending deadlines when possible, or accommodating last minutes schedule changes. Make it the exception, and not the rule, but be prepared to make adjustments5

Keep remote employees updated on small and big updates, and ask for the same in return for their own updates or new information. Take and review notes from all communication and video meetings, follow-up on key details and avoid duplications, and share the information in a central drive6. Use this moment to lead versus micro-manage, and allow your employees working in different timezones to give you input on timelines. Start stand-up meetings with an ice-breaker or brag about recent team work. This is the time to unite your team — not divide it. The more you embrace a remote work environment, the more you will see its benefits far outweigh its challenges. 

Establish Clear Structures 

Cross-functional teams offer streamlined processes — team performance can dovetail into individual employee evaluations. Everyone on the team gets to contribute and play a role in the bigger picture. It is also an approach that applauds the workers with proper credit and recognizes individual contributions. 

Cross-functional teams do come with challenges, and a recent study indicated that 75% of cross-functional teams are dysfunctional7. The study is based on failed criteria such as poor budget planning, failing to meet customer expectations, and team communication. The biggest challenge is holding the team accountable. You can avoid these common pitfalls and approach cross-functional teams with an outcome in mind — this engages the group to determine appropriate roles. Assign and establish clear structures and define clear roles of team responsibility.  

Cross-functional teams offer deeper levels of collaboration and add a layer of opportunity for internal buy-in and equal voice in projects8. Employees normally working in silos now get a chance to gain valuable input for internal and external perspectives. Not to mention, they now have more access to high-level support and can network with leadership. There is also the opportunity for a clear feedback loop and the chance to encourage an organization to think strategically. It helps you identify the best team leads for projects, and it removes barriers to project success. 

Build Stronger Bonds 

In the COVID-19 crisis, co-located teams offer a chance to build social relationships. As teams operating in the same space, there are many benefits for co-located teams, such as regular face-to-face interactions and the opportunity to develop strong interpersonal bonds. The continuing shift to remote work as the new normal indicates a new range of behaviours9 — including an emphasis on higher levels of social orientation versus remote employees. A risk of co-located teams is the chance that the team will value their social relationship over the work product. They might even be reluctant to speak out on important issues if it affects team harmony. 

The fact is that social relationships and face-to-face interaction matters. It opens dialogue and encourages your team to communicate and feel comfortable with each other. Developing a team with strong interpersonal bonds creates a unique position. It facilitates better relationships and confirms that teams see themselves as part of the team. Be the leader that helps them set and follow boundaries to keep the balance. 

How to Set Expectations for Teams in Remote Work Environments

Operating in the new normal of COVID-19 requires embracing remote work for your team. There are endless obstacles to overcome, such as isolation factors, interruptions and distractions — not to mention, accessibility to technology for disabled workers. One way to address this challenge is to take a strategic approach to meet worker requirements and still encourage voluntary engagement[1].

So, what are some other ways to set clear expectations to help create a culture of accountability for your remote work teams? Here are suggested methods for communicating and setting clear expectations, delegating team tasks, leading by example, and tracking team performance.

Communication and Preferences

Developing an inclusive and accountable team requires clear direction, asking the right questions, and getting your organization on the same page. This includes removing clutter and confusion and sourcing feedback on work, goals and budget.

A collaborative culture takes time and is reinforced by understanding your expectations as a leader or manager. Get the ball rolling by sharing your non-negotiable preferences, clearly communicating expected results, and creating opportunities for your team[2]. Take the lead during stand-up meetings, and facilitate discussions to help your team determine their work expectations and establish team norms. Share meeting notes on a central drive so the team can access it for reminders.

Remember that expectations are a two-way street. Hold yourself accountable and honour your end of the deal. Agree and follow through on decisions together as a team — but set clear consequences if the team fails to meet expectations. Be deliberate on agreements and invite the team to participate in discussions regarding consequences. In the end, non-negotiables are more likely to get the results and deliver the high-performing work you want.

One best practice to open lines of communication is to listen to all expectations and avoid losing credibility by ignoring unreasonable expectations. Adjust expectations for the results you need. Reaching team performance is more than giving up control. It requires accurate and crystal clear expectations, opens the ownership process to include the overall team — and increases accountability as a by-product. It only makes sense to set your employees up for success as they transition from a more structured traditional work environment to an unstructured remote environment[3]. Setting expectations allows your team to focus on their work, and their connection to the overall team.

Clearly Define Work

What is your delegating strategy? Do you have a system for delegating projects? And do you schedule time to discuss upcoming tasks with your team? Follow the three Ws to delegate tasks, and ask what needs to get done, when is the final deadline, and who is in charge of specific tasks[4]. By clearly defining the task or project, you can be flexible with time ranges, and avoid interpretations. Specify what successful draft completions look like — versus reports that are ready for client submission.

Look for common pitfalls when it comes to proposing a new project, such as waiting for volunteers, instead of correctly choosing the right fit for the right job. Take some time to avoid playing favourites for assigning challenging and high-profile work. Don’t let trust in your leadership decisions erode because you unfairly delegate work. Your team will feel overlooked and perceive your behaviour as a barometer for predicting future actions. Instead, equip your team with the right experience and trust them to produce[5].

Prepare your team with a defined work scope and share it in a central drive. Establish strategic structure and systems and keep your remote workers engaged and accountable. Know your project needs, follow and meet strict deadlines, and share the project reins to prepare the foundation for future success. And, match the right employee to the right project and set the stage for team accountability. This will make it easier to find volunteers, delegate strategically, and increase the odds of accurate work on time, on cost and on budget.

Always Lead by Example

Leading by example, is more than a cliché — it’s action that sets the tone for how your team will approach tasks and projects. If you want to tap into your team’s full potential, start with a clear vision and the bigger picture, and give your best effort. Your team will listen carefully to what their leader says. But they will also look intently at what you do. Remote teams working in seclusion, or on cross-functional teams, need to share ideas and feedback for both you and the overall team. Your demonstrated ability to demonstrate openness will help your team feel comfortable with giving feedback.

This is the time to set and follow defined expectations for projects and deadlines, and create opportunities for your remote workers to take meaningful responsibility[6]. Be flexible to challenges, and make adjustments when necessary — but stick to the playbook. It will help you navigate any storms and inspire your team to follow suit. Get in front of potential problems and communicate early, and often, to trouble-shoot and make quick decisions. Own your mistakes and be purposeful and deliberate with your decision. if you are wrong — admit you are wrong and address the mistake.

You will also need to understand that team members will approach projects in many different ways. Some are quick with ideas, some prefer to take a planning approach, and others feel they work best under pressure. Allow your team to determine their timelines and track project success to hold them accountable. By giving your team a voice in setting milestones, and even encouraging sprint timelines of three weeks or less, you are promoting ownership of joint deliverables[7]. Keep an eye on team performance with regular performance reviews and conduct one-on-one sessions for open dialogue on opportunities for team collaboration[8].

Accountable teams need accountable leaders. If you want your team to perform at high standards, your actions must set the tone for their expected behaviours. Give your best efforts and lead by example — both verbally and visually.


[1] Dhawan, E., & Chamorro-Premuzic, T. (2018). How to Collaborate Effectively If Your Team Is Remote. Harvard Business Review.

[2] Lovelace, D. (2020). Holding Your Team Accountable. Lynda.

[3] Carosa, C. (2020). How Can You Still Communicate Effectively With Staff And Coworkers While Working From Home. Forbes.

[4] Lovelace, D. (2020). Holding Your Team Accountable. Lynda.

[5] Neely, T. (2020). 15 Questions About Remote Work, Answered. Harvard Business Review.

[6] Dhawan, E., & Chamorro-Premuzic, T. (2018). How to Collaborate Effectively If Your Team Is Remote. Harvard Business Review.

[7] Lovelace, D. (2020). Holding Your Team Accountable. Lynda. 

[8] Lovelace, D. (2020). Holding Your Team Accountable. Lynda.