Building a team when your organization operates remotely is challenging. This blog post gives you great tools to form an actual team!
What is challenging about remote team-building?
The fundamental processes in remote team-building don’t differ much from a team that forms face-to-face.
However, your task as a remote leader is to compensate for the missing personal contact of people that engage in remote work.
And this missing personal contact has a variety of consequences that are not helpful for your business.
The most obvious problem is that collaboration needs to happen while your team is not in one room. So it has to rely on digital tools. Problem-solving in such a setup is much harder, compared to physically working together.
Therefore, joint successes are harder to reach and the sense of joint achievement is limited.
LACK OF TEAM COHESION
When your remote workers can’t spend time with each other, a central part of creating team cohesion is missing: Personal interaction.
The intensity of personal relationships is lower, while it takes longer to build them. These relationships are critical for your team to bond.
HANDLING CONFLICT IS INEFFICIENT
We derive a lot of our interpersonal information during conversation over non-verbal cues. Unfortunately, their perception in a remote setup is limited to video calls (and you will still miss a good share of them).
Especially in situations of conflict, these missing non-verbal cues make resolving a dispute hard.
ESTABLISHING COMPANY CULTURE IS DIFFICULT
Limited exposure to coworkers or office space and other culture artifacts makes it difficult to establish a culture.
Imagine your team member located on another continent that has three calls per week and other than that works on his own.
Helping him understand, embrace and promote your company culture is not easy.
Most remote organizations will work with a team that is distributed over different locations and cultures. Navigating cultural differences in the day-to-day is a challenge on its own.
Now that we discussed the challenges of building a remote team, let’s look at the tools you have to do it anyway.
3, 2, 1, Go!
1. Use software tools that improve collaboration
When choosing your technology stack, make sure you assess the tools you use for their ability to enable collaboration.
The lower the threshold for collaboration and communication, the more likely it is that your team will actually engage. Choose tools that have built in chat functionality or allow for integration with your messenger software.
Use a chat software. Asynchronous communication must be super easy in a remote organization, yet email is too impractical for fluent and frequent exchange between your team members.
REAL-TIME COLLABORATION TOOLS
Tools that allow for collaboration on a certain problem such as Miro or any other white-board software are great to push your team to actually engage.
To harvest their full potential
- don’t use them asynchronously, but have everyone in the same call
- don’t share your screen, but have everyone use the collaboration functionality
DIGITAL WORKPLACE TOOLS
Tools like Tandem or Kosy aim at replicating the ease of communication of a classical office. Tools like walkie-talkie-like instant calls and other collaboration tools are a great platform to help reduce friction for collaboration.
2. Create a sense of team culture and identity
When working remotely, your team will miss out on many cultural touch-points that occur naturally when working in an office. Random chats with co-workers, the look and feel of an office – all those things have to be compensated for.
Here are some things you can do.
SHARE COMPANY NEWS OFTEN.
This can include information about the current strategy, messages from the leadership team or other company news. Your goal is to provide all information that can be shared in an engaging way.
When your team knows a joint goal and direction, as well as current challenges that affect the whole or parts of the organization, chances are that they identify even more with your organization.
SWAG AND OTHER CULTURAL ARTIFACTS
Use swag bags to compensate for the missing physical employee experience. You can put them together in-house out of marketing stuff you have or use a service that does it for you like swagup.
Whatever else you might come up with that will be an expression of your culture – put it out there. If you have a company song, play a snippet it at the beginning of the town hall.
If you can share videos or some fun pictures of yourself or other remote team members of your company, this will help to decrease distance as well.
Another great way to integrate your employees into the new setup is to have virtual team building games. This will increase employee engagement and build trust among the employees.
If, on the other hand, you want to build a rather formal organization, convey this by sharing formal content and adhering to formal structures. It’s your company, the way you design it is your choice.
You only have to communicate extensively.
- If you can, have the team meet each other at least once, ideally early. Consider this even when looking for new roles: A person that you can actually meet every once in a while might be a great addition to your team.
Additionally, catalyzed by the Covid19 pandemic that forced millions of companies to work remotely, an amazing new category of software has evolved: digital workplaces.
These tools are trying to mimic physical office spaces and thus create the same high chances of randomly meeting people. A great example for this is above-mentioned Kosy.
3. Start each meeting with private conversations
Continuing the thought from above, starting each meeting with some private chit-chat sounds very simple, but it will do a lot for your organization.
A HUMAN ORGANIZATION
Tell your team about your weekend, ask them how their’s has been. Remember their families’ names and birthdays and ask how they are. This will ease the mood for the meeting.
Research shows that informal or even private openings of meetings make them much more effective. More than an icebreaker, it changes the tone and the openness of the meeting and increases engagement on a personal level.
KNOW YOUR TEAM
Asking questions (and have your team do the same) will help your team members to learn more about their colleagues and add a personal touch.
Knowing their team members will increase team cohesion and also allow for situative support in case a team member needs it.
It also shows your remote employees that a genuine interest in the individual and personal relationships are important to you and the company. And these personal relationships in turn will create trust and loyalty and improve the morale of your employees.
4. Actively improve your meeting culture
The virtual meetings you host are – as in every organization – the most important tool you have to form your organization and lead it to success. Plan and execute them deliberately to build your team.
CAMERA ON OR OFF
The use of camera has many benefits, the most important one being the additional non-verbal communication. Use video chat especially in smaller meetings and in meetings that have a critical agenda.
MAKE SURE EVERYONE CAN BE HEARD
Make sure your meetings are a two-way-communication as much as possible. The motto is: Engage, don’t broadcast.
If people can share there thoughts on business and off-topic questions, this will help to create a sense of ownership.
To do this, specifically ask people in the meeting for their opinion or if they have things they want to add.
5. Allow and cultivate informal communication
That’s a big one. When you manage a remote team, you have to tolerate – or better foster – informal communication.
INFORMAL SLACK CHANNEL
That could be your team using your slack environment to open up private channels, or setting up zoom calls with partly or solely private objectives.
If your team has the right work ethics and is managed well, this won’t get out of hand. On the contrary, it’s a critical part of what holds together teams and the whole organization. Think of it as replacing the small talk at the coffee machine.
Don’t obsess over channel vs. private use of slack as a measure of productiveness.
RANDOM WATER-COOLER TALK
The above mentioned workplace software tools often have features that allow for random meetings of coworkers.
You can either schedule random 15-minute calls between colleagues that don’t know each other yet. Or you can provide rooms where random direct conversations are being opened up when someone enters along with a few icebreaker questions.
A virtual happy hour during the week also acts as a tool to increase team bonding, which can include various remote team building activities like pub trivia, murder mystery or virtual escape rooms.
If you feel that this is too artificial, these tools can even suggest topics to discuss to get the conversation going. There are also a multitude of virtual team building activities which you can use to facilitate communication.
6. Have 1-on-1s in place
While a 1-on-1 meeting with each of your team members might not directly contribute to your team’s cohesion, it will signal appreciation and open communication that eventually will carry over in the team norms your employees develop.
They are a great tool for 2-way communication that allows you to learn about what’s important for your direct report – both in terms of topics you are working on and from an organizational perspective.
If you ensure that everyone in your organization establishes this meeting type, information flow, the feeling of being heard and engagement will increase.
This, in turn, will increase loyalty to your company and help forming a team.
7. Be transparent
If you want your team to take ownership of their work, give them owner-like information.
THE STATUS OF THE COMPANY
The more they know about the current state of business, the more they will find purpose in their work. An impressive growth curve as a result of great work can be as motivating as being transparent about challenges your company faces.
What both things have in common: A clear, meaningful and desirable goal shared by the team is a reliable driver for forming a team.
A common problem we see in remote organizations is that individual team members have a great and deep understanding of their own field of work, but don’t know much about other parts of the company.
The call this the white-box-effect: Your individual surrounding is clear, but what happens in the rest of the organization is not.
The disadvantages are obvious: It’s hard to optimize one’s own work you you don’t know what your input is being used for and how. Also taking ownership is hard if you only know one piece of the puzzle.
Try to shed as much light on all parts of the company. Possible ways to achieve that are sessions in which department leads present their departments or work-shadowing sessions of new hires.
8. Set joint team goals
Team cohesion develops better when you are on a joint mission with your team mates.
Use strategy execution tools to break down your strategy into actionable pieces. When everybody knows what they are working on and how it contributes to the bigger picture, this is a very motivating thing.
Jump on a video conference call with your team via Google Meet or Microsoft Teams or any other video conferencing tool to set things in motion.
USE TEAM GOALS INSTEAD OF INDIVIDUAL GOALS
Manage your team as a team. If possible, define targets for the team, not only for the individual employees. This will enhance both the sense of purpose and autonomy because your teams can organize their own work (instead of you doing it).
Also, a goal they reach is a shared success.
9. Promote individual teams within the organization
HIGHLIGHT ACHIEVEMENTS OF TEAMS THROUGHOUT YOUR ORGANIZATION
Joint accomplishments are even more meaningful if they are perceived and acknowledged as such. Therefore, if a team achieves something great, communicate it throughout the organization.
Shared praise will increase team cohesion. Also, the achievement will be linked to the team and its name and not to single people.
GIVE THE TEAM A NAME AND A MEETING STRUCTURE
Come up with a great name for the team. This should be the name the team uses to reference itself, so it should be short and attractive. There’s nothing wrong with simply using their function (the accounting team), but maybe you can come up with something more emotional. The only important thing is that both the team and the rest of the organization accept and use the name.
Also, establish a team meeting and whatever other regular meetings the team might need.
10. Choose the right people
As for any team, having the right members is the most critical factor for a well-functioning team.
When hiring for a remote operation, the culture fit of a candidate might not be as obvious as when you meet a candidate personally. So again, it makes sense to be very specific about culture as well.
If you haven’t done this, write down the core values for your company (either actual or the target ones).
Having this clarity will enable you to assess whether a candidate has what it takes to become a great part of the team – next to the work and task-related skills and experiences, of course.
And make great onboarding a priority. When a new employee joins the team, it’s a great chance to set the tone for both the new person and the existing team.
Design the onboarding process in a way that allows for a lot of exposure to your culture as described above.
11. Add Team-building exercises and events
Team building exercises and events are the last entry on this list not because they are most important, but because they are a thing to consider once you’ve worked on the above.
An afternoon with team-building exercises will not fix problems in the day-to-day that had been going on for months.
But if your setup is generally good, some fun time to get to know the team better can really add momentum to your teams development.
There are great exercises for remote team-building out there, like the all famous remote scavenger hunt. Check out some of these great lists:
- 10 Best Team Building Games for Remote Workers
- 57 Virtual Team Building Activities For Remote Teams in 2021
Let me know your experiences with building remote teams in the comments below. And if you need help with your remote team-building, use the blue button above and get in touch.