COVID-19 restrictions forced teams to switch to a remote work model. It is unclear if companies will continue to support distributed teams after restrictions ease, but many are preparing for the likelihood that work from home is here to stay.
In May 2020, we spoke with Michael Faas, Director of Information Technology at Nuventra Pharma Sciences, to learn how to foster communication and community with a distributed team. 12+ months later, his insights are still relevant.
“Nuventra has been remote friendly since I have been there,” Mike shares. “We have always encouraged people to work from home at least one day a week. In fact, we had this little thing that if the company’s doing well… it’s kind of a joke that if we were hitting our billable numbers, that you could work from home two days a week. The company understands that people have things that they have to take care of, like taking your kid to the doctor.”
If your team is still learning to work effectively as a distributed team, take a look at Mike’s approach.
Nuventra’s established work from home policy gave them a head start in early 2020. Even so, their employees still had questions. Some of the most important questions seemed almost too obvious:
“...Even though we were remote friendly, there were some folks who never really took advantage of it, who had never used a VPN connection before. This was good in a way for the IT team, because we identified some of the gaps in the documentation.”
Some may see the real gap in the documentation as being a generation gap. In reality, that wasn’t the case.
“You assume people know what a VPN is, what it’s used for, what the benefits are. We have some kids coming straight out of college, this is their first job. They don’t understand how, or why, or what. So, we do some of that education.”
Be ready to train team members on how to use collaboration, productivity, and security tools effectively, including how those tools fit into each process and workflow unique to their job.
Of course, training and onboarding are easier if you take a people-first approach.
Mike Faas, being the lead of the IT department, is one of the first people who has the opportunity to meet new employees. He shared that nine out of ten times, new hires seem nervous because of the stigma that IT people are hard to talk to. So, to ease the tension, he tells new team members:
Under the best of circumstances, remote onboarding poses challenges, especially when it comes to developing a feel for company culture. Nuventra engages new hires in virtual social events where they can meet coworkers outside of their immediate team. This also gives IT a chance to reshape their image from “people you just have to deal with”, to a helpful collaborator.
As an IT professional, if your goal is to help your organization grow, you’ll need to demystify the jargon by adding a human touch:
“We try to avoid that stigma of IT being crusty, mean, you know ‘have you tried turning it off and turning it back on again?’ We are proud of the fact that we can translate geek into human.”
Throughout his career, Mike has focused on advancing the role of IT from a cost center to a true strategic partner. His approach starts with how he connects with each person. Even without a video chat, you can hear Mike’s smile through the phone.
“I don’t want people to see IT as overhead, and as these people you ‘just have to deal with’,” Mike explains. “I want IT to be a partner in the company. Because everything comes back to how the computers are working, how IT can make things more efficient, how IT might be able to simplify a process or automate something for you.”
In a remote world, you can’t simply walk up to someone’s desk to solve a problem. And it’s all too easy for info to get lost in translation via emails or messaging apps. So, the IT team at Nuventra simplifies things with this rule: Unless there’s a technical difficulty, always use video chat when speaking to employees.
“We do have Zoom, we do have Teams, we do have other remote control or service desk software as well. I am a firm believer in being able to look somebody in the eyes when I’m talking to them about a problem, because it makes it more personal. I’m not just a voice on the other end of the line, trying to figure out what they are seeing.”
Mike explains that using video for support calls helps him put the other person at ease. He reads their expression to assess the level of frustration, which helps him prioritize which issue to troubleshoot.
While chatting, Mike does use screen sharing and service desk tools to assist coworkers, but he always couples them with video.
“If this typing back and forth in this chat is going to be more than 10 lines of chat, let’s just click that little call button, and let’s look at each other and walk through it.”
Paired with video, remote access to a colleague’s computer is as close as it gets to being in the same room. This sense of working side by side is particularly useful in making new employees feel a part of the team.
Mike acknowledges that there is a bit of a generation gap when it comes to adopting video chat: “Some of our older employees are a little less likely to turn their camera on when they are chatting.” But he also notes that they are getting better: Social events provide a pressure-free setting to build comfort with video chat tools.
Mike’s team took fast action to reach out in early 2020. “My boss organized a virtual happy hour for his team. At 4pm, everybody got on Zoom. It got silly, where they were saying everybody go find some sort of silly hat and wear it while we’re hanging out. I had my son’s jungle hat with plants and stuff coming out. People had propeller beanies. It was hilarious. It was an excuse to be silly because we kind of all needed it at that point.”
The comfort from that social setting lowered barriers that older team members initially felt with video chat, making the culture stronger and the communication better.
Getting a glimpse behind the curtain (or desk) humanizes your coworkers and helps people connect. You’ll learn something new that you weren’t expecting, and these discoveries will spur genuine conversations that deepen team bonds.
"Part of what I’ve really been fascinated by is seeing people’s homes. Seeing what’s on people’s walls. Seeing what kind of artwork people have.”
By now, most remote workers are familiar with fly-bys of kids, spouses, and pets during meetings. Many of us know our team members’ meal and commute schedules. For those of us working with global teams, video chat offers an instant teleport to other locations and time of day. On a lucky day, you may get a view of another person’s city or getaway.
Embrace these opportunities to appreciate your colleagues, and nurture meaningful connections and better working relationships.
Tools turn the gears that get the message from point A to point B. However, making team members feel appreciated goes beyond strictly talking business.
Slack, Teams, and other collaboration tools are useful for more than just meetings.
“It makes it so easy just to shoot out a message to everybody in the company. Whether it’s ‘Hey, watch out for this new phishing campaign,’ or ‘Congratulations from so-and-so, their kid just graduated from college!’ Everybody just loves that kind of information, and everybody responds, even with just a smiley face. It really helps the culture at our company, showing how much people care.”
Look for opportunities to acknowledge people doing things right, and celebrate big and small wins.
According to Mike, one of the main reasons why team members hesitate to ask IT for help is because they fear coming across as stupid.
To be more encouraging, Mike practiced an open-door policy where anyone could drop by his desk to ask any question. Determined to keep the same model once the team moved to remote work, he decided to hold virtual office hours once a week.
The meetings are 1.5 hours with an open format—everyone is free to talk tech or just hang out. In addition to being fun, some of those hangouts have given the Nuventra team valuable insight on how to improve processes.
Will remote work continue post-pandemic? Mike Faas believes so and points to companies like Git Lab as an example.
From the beginning, Git Lab has been fully distributed. One of the keys to their successful work from home culture is transparency about what is going on in the company. Without transparency, people will naturally jump to the worst conclusion, which could cause unnecessary conflict or deepen divisions.
The more your team members understand about IT, the easier your job becomes. For one, they’ll know how to speak more of your language, allowing you to quickly leap small hurdles so you can focus on larger issues. And if IT has a better idea of how each department is fairing, you’ll be able to:
At the core of any high-performing remote team is a sense of community. Building this connection isn’t only a matter of implementing the right tools; it takes empathy to transition your team to remote-first and to establish IT as a true partner:
Mike Faas is Director of Information Technology at Nuventra Pharma Sciences. He heavily invests his efforts into a people-first approach that builds trust and meaningful relationships with his colleagues.
If you are looking for tips on how to improve the data security of your remote team, check out what Jenn Rendon, an IT expert at Rubrik, recommends to her clients.