Are remote teams the solution to a working mom’s top problem?

Motherly cofounders used their instincts to help build a next generation business where remote teams—and parents—can thrive.

Are remote teams the solution to a working mom’s top problem?

I distinctly remember being pregnant with my first daughter and commuting two hours a day as a consultant in Washington, D.C. It was hard on my growing body, leading me to seek chiropractic care, and toward the end of my pregnancy, made me nervous to be so far from home and the hospital—but, that's the reality for many mamas.

This experience was central to our decision at Motherly to have a fully remote workforce as a way to support families and working parents. We also took lessons from my days as a consultant helping organizations increase agility and spent time talking to other office-free founders before taking the leap.

The bottom line? Inflexibility and commuting take up precious hours of a working mom's day.

Today, remote collaboration is easier than ever with video conferencing technologies and synchronous communication tools becoming ubiquitous, prompting a growing number of companies to opt for no office at all. It helps the bottom line for businesses in terms of savings on office space and improves employee retention and satisfaction.

And in today's dual-income families, the flexibility provided can be a key ingredient in helping families thrive. In the four years since launching Motherly my co-founder, Liz Tenety, and I have only been co-located for a total of four months. In fact, we didn't see each other at all the entire second year of Motherly—and we've still thrived.

With a growing team of more than 50, we've found that we are on the cutting edge of an important trend for workplaces. Research shows that companies with a substantial remote workforce have a higher percentage of women in leadership roles, which amounts to roughly four times as many women in CEO/founding roles than S&P 500 office-based companies.

Along the way, we've learned a lot of lessons on how to establish and maintain a cohesive remote team—here are the top 10.

1. Go all in.

Fully remote teams function more effectively than a hybrid where some work remote and some co-located. In my experience, having a co-founding and/or leadership team co-located when the rest of the team is remote can make it hard to set reasonable expectations and can result in an us versus them mentality. Leading a remote team requires working remotely so that the challenges the workforce feels can be genuinely understood and appreciated.

2. Nurture an empowered culture where everyone feels comfortable speaking up and across functions.

Proximity breeds comfort and without it, people tend to stay polite and surface-level longer. Stressing the importance of being empowered and speaking truth to power is critical to encouraging a team to share constructive criticism versus platitudes.

3. Establish shared core work hours to ensure synchronous communication can occur across time zones reducing bottlenecks.

Remote work has been proven to increase team efficiency but time zones can kill gains if not addressed head-on. Businesses can benefit from around the world coverage and support but collaboration can be hard if teammates can't connect realtime. Core co-working hours are a simple but effective fix.

4. Utilize video conferencing to support human connections.

In today's digital world most everyone is comfortable interacting online but the nuances of human interaction are easier to decipher face-to-face and help form bonds that are critical to overcoming the eventual miscommunication that will occasionally occur between teammates. Make a point of holding video calls whenever possible—screen-sharing via video can also help with collaboration and problem solving.

5. Leverage tools (like Slack) with small talk channels to serve as a virtual #watercooler.

Slack is a lifesaver for a remote team providing synchronous communication with organization and notification features to make it manageable, limiting information overload. And don't just think about it as a business communication tool but also a team building tool. Plugins exist to facilitate virtual coffee meetups between colleagues and a general #watercooler channel can also become a hub for non-work discussions that serve as a way for remote teammates to get to know each other at a personal level.

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

Ad hoc group problem solving can be limited for remote teams so creating the structure to mitigate lost opportunities can be helpful to 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 across teams and functions.

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

Notice the word retreat, not conference or all-hands—while it's important to have time to communicate company strategy and important initiatives, for remote teams the in-person time must prioritize team building through shared experiences. Casual meals, volunteer projects, a cheesy city tour, bowling outing, or museum visit can become company lore and tradition that over time become part of the foundation of a company's culture.

8. Hold virtual holiday parties + celebrations.

Get creative! Set up virtual secret Santa or cookie exchange, order lunch in for everyone remotely, leverage Amazon to synchronize deliveries for a baby shower and get everyone on video conference for a festive good time. Another one to try—cancel meetings on a Friday afternoon and send everyone on 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 as important, if not more important, for remote teams. Identify a company-wide initiative and assign it based on skill set and individual superpowers versus functional teams, creating an opportunity for inter-team collaboration.

10. Set aside time to review and address hardships as a remote team.

Being purposeful about removing obstacles and modifying structures, processes, and tools as teams evolve. Creating a culture of honesty means acknowledging challenges and facing them head-on. Encourage teams to share obstacles and hardships and take the time to appreciate them rather than jumping into problem-solving mode from the start. Everyone needs an occasional venting session and you'll find that through the discussion, the team will find its way to solutions and a recognition that the tradeoffs are totally worth it. It's so much more authentic if they draw that conclusion themselves vs leadership cheerleading the benefits of remote work.

A strong, cohesive team culture is possible for remote teams and like all relationships it takes time and continuous work. In the end, teamwork makes the remote dream work creating tangible and intangible benefits for the business and employees, as well as their families. Put in the time in to establish the structure, behavior and processes and you'll be rewarded with a committed, loyal, and united team. More than that, you'll have thriving mamas and families.

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

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