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How to Build Strong and Effective Teams in a Remote Organisation? – 5 key essentials we have implemented at Osom

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By Karolina Szor

8 min read

Transitioning into a remote organisation requires changes in the day-to-day work arrangement and how we think about building relationships within the team. If you, like us, have chosen the remote working path, you may face some challenges. The following article provides a handful of insights into our experiences and remote-first journey.

With 2021 in lockdown most of the time, many organisations have opened up to sustain the working-from-home option. Market research indicates that the possibility to work remotely is now one of the most sought-after employee benefits – at least in the IT and digital sectors. 

In our case, however, this path began a bit earlier. As early as 2018, we allowed our employees to work from outside the office 2 days a week – today, we call this model hybrid working (we did it before it was cool 😎). By the end of the outbreak period, when things had somewhat normalised, we consulted our employees on whether they would like to return to the office – the decision was practically unanimous. So, we became a remote-first organisation. Today, more than 60% of our team is employed and onboarded entirely online. 

Throughout this period, we have put a lot of effort into ensuring that this distance is not an obstacle to our daily communication. One important aspect was to create a working environment with which people feel connected. Where they actually want to stay for longer and act proactively, as they feel a responsibility for the quality we want to deliver to our customers. Establishing these bonds requires considerably more effort than when you work directly from one place, but it is not impossible.

Here are five key principles (in random order – each one is equally important!) that support the process of creating effective remote teams.

 

1:  We need to remember that not everyone wants/will be able to work remotely 

It is important to realise that remote working is not for everyone – there will be people who do not fit into this model. At Osom, we openly announce that we intend to make remote work permanent – this sends out a clear signal to those who prefer stationary work that they might not feel comfortable with us. 

Our recruitment process includes components that allow us to test, at least to some extent, how a candidate would potentially fit into our work mode. The first stage involves written communication only – this allows us to check how someone translates their thoughts into text. Such a competence is one of the key ones when working asynchronously (see point 3).  In the following stages, in order to assess, for example, the level of self-organisation by asking the candidate to set their deadlines for submitting tasks to us. 

We also strive to ensure that, throughout the process, a candidate has the opportunity to get to know our company – starting from the tools used, through the projects, all the way to our workplace culture and values – to facilitate an informed decision as to whether Osom is a place where they would be comfortable. 

 

2: We need to nurture relationships within the team more explicitly, as they are harder to develop 

When working remotely, you do not have casual meetings over coffee in the kitchen or in the office corridor and opportunities to chat casually (it is also true that not every person likes it – small talk with co-workers may feel artificial and awkward for some). One must bear in mind that relationship building is much more difficult at a distance. 

We have learned from experience that it is virtually impossible to integrate a team of 20 people during a video call. That is one of the reasons why we at Osom work daily in smaller multidisciplinary teams composed of different specialists – PM, dev, and graphic designer. Each team is responsible for its client group and communicates with each other on a daily basis. We believe that a smaller group of  regular colleagues makes it easier to build a stronger relationship with them. 

We also arrange special space for people to talk 'not about work' – technology available today gives us tremendous leeway here. We have dedicated channels in our daily communication tools, and a team meets every two weeks for a virtual coffee with random  Osom people where they can chat about causal topics and get to know each other better. We encourage the team to have everyone's webcams on during online meetings – this way, people can not only hear each other but see each other as well – it adds a 'more human' dimension to our meetings. 

Furthermore, we have set up an internal volunteer unit that plans regular team-building meetings for the whole company. We hold regular meetings (at least three times a year) offline at various locations – the trip time is devoted solely to integration – the work stays in our online offices.

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3: We need to remember that seamless communication is a key to effective performance 

Whenever people perform tasks simultaneously from different locations, it is easy for them to miss out on key information about company life. Lack of information can generate a lot of misunderstandings and assumptions that are destructive to the team. Nobody likes to be ghosted. We strive to ensure a good flow of information – all information is gathered in a specific place and easily accessible to every team member. 

We aim to foster an organisation where every employee understands the idea of asynchronous communication. We aspire to ensure that every Osom team member knows the flow of information – the use of channels, their hierarchy in terms of the topic importance and response time. Asynchronous working imposes more discipline – we respect each other's time and ensure that we are as productive as possible. We understand that most of the tasks we carry out require a focus and thorough work of specialists, so we try to organise our time and space in such a way as to favour deep work. 

Asynchronous communication is based mainly on the written word, but if there is a need to chat about something F2F then, of course, team members can have a quick 5-minute catch-up call to discuss a topic. The way to consult your ideas with another Osom person, even from a different department, thus becomes paradoxically shorter – all it takes is a webcam. 

 

4: If we want to implement asynchronous working, we should not force people to work synchronously 

Many managers argue that remote working is less effective because they lose control over whether or not their team is working. We recognise a paradox here as people who do not feel a sense of responsibility for the given tasks can sit in an office within a set framework from 8 am to 4 pm and not deliver any value.

Here at Osom, each employee sets their own working hours – we thereby enjoy the benefit of individual circadian rhythms – we do not expect our team to be most productive at a specific X hour. We facilitate the flexibility that supports work-life balance and maximum productivity. Osom people set their own core hours, and if there is a need to finish work outside of this declared time, they have a dedicated channel on Slack where they inform the whole team about the change. We also set statuses that indicate temporary unavailability – so everyone can see when you are going to lunch or need to pop out to the shop for a while. 

All  assigned tasks have a time estimate – again, a team determines its capacity in terms of deadlines and the number of hours it needs to complete a task before work starts. When deadlines are compromised, a team communicates with each other as soon as possible to prevent potential postponements. 

 

5: We need to be vigilant for any disruptions and tackle them right away 

Naturally, there are times, even despite specific rules and specific channels for communication, when someone has not heard about something – as soon as we diagnose such a 'gap', we immediately try to introduce an improvement in the overall flow. We monitor arising difficulties on an ongoing basis and mitigate them when they occur. We are supported in this by our processes – everyone at Osom has regular one-to-ones with their supervisor, twice a year hold company evaluations (feedback to Osom), and project reviews after completed projects. 

We pay great attention to nurturing a culture of ongoing feedback – our team is constantly encouraged to share their insights on how we work together. Any feedback on our ways of work is welcome, as it allows us to solve day-to-day issues instead of accumulating unnecessary frustrations and misunderstandings. When an employee comes to a mender with a problem in their cooperation with another person, the first question is "did they receive feedback from you?" – thereby placing great emphasis on people communicating openly with each other, minimising the risk of escalation of misunderstandings. The ability to listen to employees and improve operations is key to the success of any organisation.

When a topic concerns more than one person, we post it on our company message board, where the CTA goes on – read up and let us know what you think. We discuss all issues in the forum – everyone involved has full access to them and an opportunity to refer back, ask questions, and address their concerns. It also applies to our foundations – company values and the expected attitudes in our daily work. Each team member can suggest modifications to these if they wish to add or change something, for instance, a lesson learned in a project is of particular relevance to the whole team. Similarly, if it becomes clear that an attitude becomes irrelevant over time, it is removed from the list. 

 

Summary 

The vast majority of our team has not even spent a day in a shared office. Despite the different locations, our people feel part of one crew, united by relationships and a desire to work together. We believe that the measures we took allowed us to build a strong and well-organised team, which delivers high-quality work and a sense of community. 

We do regular health checks on the current state of affairs – so far, the feedback we gather from the team through the internal company evaluation gives us no cause for concern. That's why we remain a remote first and have no plans to force ourselves back into the office in any way – the truth is that this would be unfeasible, as some of us are hundreds of kilometres apart.

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By Karolina Szor

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