Are Remote Teams the Solution to a Working Mother's Main Problem?

I vividly remember being pregnant with my first daughter and commuting two hours a day as a counselor in Washington DC so far from home and the hospital – but that is the reality for many mothers.

That experience was central to our decision at Motherly to have a fully remote workforce to support families and working parents. We also took lessons from my time as a consultant helping organizations become more agile and spent time talking to other office-based founders before taking the plunge.

The final result? Inflexibility and commuting take up precious hours of a working mother’s day.

Today, remote collaboration is easier than ever as video conferencing technologies and synchronous communication tools are ubiquitous, leading a growing number of businesses not to choose an office. It helps companies save office space and improve employee retention and satisfaction.

And in today’s double-income families, flexibility can be a critical factor in family thriving. In the four years since Motherly was founded, my co-founder Liz Tenety and I have only been together for a total of four months. In fact, we didn’t see each other at all for the entire second year of Motherly – and we’re still doing well.

With a growing team of more than 50 employees, we have found that we have our finger on the pulse of an important workplace trend. Research shows that companies with significant numbers of remote workers have a higher percentage of women in executive positions, roughly four times as many women in CEO / founder positions than S&P 500 companies with office locations.

Along the way, we’ve learned many lessons on how to build and maintain a cohesive remote team – here are the top 10.

1. Go all in.

Fully remote teams work more effectively than a hybrid, where some work remotely and others work in a common location. In my experience, having reasonable expectations can be difficult and can lead to a us-versus-you mentality. Running a remote team requires working remotely so that the challenges employees are experiencing can be truly understood and appreciated.

2. Maintain a confident culture where everyone is comfortable speaking and speaking across functions.

Proximity creates comfort, and without it, people tend to remain polite and superficial for longer. To encourage a team to share constructive criticism rather than platitudes, it is important to emphasize the importance of being empowered and telling the truth to those in power.

3. Establish common core working hours to ensure that synchronous communication can take place across time zones and bottlenecks are reduced.

Working remotely has been shown to increase team efficiency, but time zones can wipe out profits if not addressed directly. Businesses can benefit from global coverage and support, but collaboration can be difficult when teammates can’t connect in real time. Core co-working hours are a simple but effective solution.

4. Use video conferencing to facilitate human connections.

In today’s digital world, almost everyone is happy with online interaction, but the nuances of face-to-face human interaction are easier to decipher and help form bonds that are critical to overcoming any misunderstandings that occasionally arise between Teammates occur. Hold video calls whenever possible – video screen sharing can also help with collaboration and problem solving.

5. Use tools (like Slack) with Smalltalk channels to act as a virtual # water cooler.

Slack is a lifesaver for a remote team that offers synchronous communication with organizational and notification functions to make it manageable and limit the information overload. And think of it not only as a business communication tool, but also as a team building tool. There are plugins to enable virtual coffee meetings between coworkers, and a general #watercooler channel can also become a hub for discussions outside of work, serving as a way for remote teammates to get to know one another on a personal level.

6. Schedule weekly “flare” sessions for free brainstorming to keep creativity flowing.

Solving ad hoc group problems can be restricted for remote teams, so creating a structure to mitigate lost opportunities can help keep creativity flowing. A weekly team or company-wide “flare” or brainstorming session that teams or individuals can claim and lead can provide an opportunity to solve problems together and build camaraderie between teams and functions.

7. Hold annual (or more!) IRL retreats to build team intimacy and bonds through shared experiences.

Note the word retreat, not conference or all-hands – while having time to communicate corporate strategy and key initiatives is important, remote teams need personal time to prioritize team building through shared experiences. Casual meals, volunteer projects, a kitschy city tour, bowling excursion, or a visit to a museum can become company lore and traditions that over time become the foundation of corporate culture.

8. Hold virtual Christmas parties + celebrations.

Get creative! Set up a virtual secret Santa Claus or cookie swap, remotely order lunch for everyone, use Amazon to sync deliveries for a baby shower, and get everyone into a video conference for a festive good time. Another way to try it – cancel meetings on a Friday afternoon and send everyone for a spa treatment at their local spa!

9. Organize cross-functional think tank projects to integrate teams and benefit from cognitive diversity in problem solving.

Cross-functional team integration is just as important, if not more important, for remote teams. Identify a company-wide initiative and assign it based on skills and individual superpowers versus functional teams to create an opportunity for cross-team collaboration.

10. Take the time to review and address issues as a remote team.

Determined to remove obstacles and change structures, processes and tools as teams evolve. Creating a culture of honesty means recognizing challenges and facing them directly. Encourage teams to share obstacles and hardships and take the time to appreciate them instead of jumping into problem-solving mode from the start. Everyone needs an occasional vent session and you will find that through the discussion, the team finds its way to solutions and realizes that the compromises are absolutely worthwhile. It’s so much more authentic for you to draw that conclusion yourself while the leadership is cheering the benefits of working remotely.

A strong, coherent team culture is possible for remote teams and, like all relationships, it takes time and continuous work. Ultimately, teamwork makes the remote dream work and creates tangible and intangible benefits for the company and its employees and their families. Take the time to establish structure, behavior and processes and you will be rewarded with a dedicated, loyal and united team. Plus, you have thriving moms and families.

[A version of this post was originally published June 20, 2019. It has been updated.]