Creating a team environment with remote teams

Written by Design Pickle • June 2, 2017

Employing a remote team has so many benefits. Flexibility, lower overheads, and access to a wider range of possible applicants than you would locally are just a few that immediately come to mind.

Remote teams also have their challenges.

One of those is that it’s much more difficult to recreate the “team” environment that you can naturally encourage when your team is co-located. There’s a lot to be said for those face-to-face encounters by the water cooler or just working in close proximity daily when it comes to building relationships.

This doesn’t mean you can’t have a remote team that works well—it just means you’re going to have to make extra efforts to build that dynamic.

Here are some thoughts when it comes to fostering teamwork and creating a healthy dynamic in your team:

ONBOARDING TEAM MEMBERS

As a recent Forbes article states with regard to remote workers: “There is one critical component that has the potential to ruin a good thing when it’s rushed or overlooked: How to successfully onboard a remote team member.”

The key lies in spending time with the new hire just as you would if you were hiring someone into a physical office team. If you don’t put the time into onboarding, they can feel disconnected or that they’re supposed to somehow muddle through on their own.

When you’re onboarding remote workers, one of the things to remember is that you have to do everything you’d normally do for a co-located workplace, as well as special considerations for remote circumstances.

For example, if you start in a new office, one of the first things you’ll get is an orientation. You’ll find out where everything is, who everyone is and where to go for help if needed. There’s also (in good workplaces) an emphasis on setting expectations early so that the new team member understands the culture of the workplace, the established “rules” or norms and where they fit in.

Don’t neglect these things for your remote team members. What are your expectations on availability? Where can they turn to if they need help? Have clearly documented procedures, but ensure that the team member feels comfortable knowing who they can personally ask for help.

 

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CREATING COLLABORATIVE CHANNELS

One of the keys to encouraging a team environment is to put the right channels in place so that good communication is enabled between team members. Tools such as Slack, HipChat, and Zoom are great to have in place and very necessary for a remote team. But in the end, the tool is only as good as the operator using it.

When you think about how starting a new job in a new physical office space usually works, the degree to which you collaborate with and get to know others is largely dependent on meeting them, having those casual run-ins by the coffee pot, or heading out for a happy hour after work.

You might be buddied up with someone or—at the very least—you get introduced to team members and are able to look them in the eye. Remote workers miss all the non-verbal cues that you get from meeting people face-to-face and it can be harder to build those relationships.

Sure, putting the channels in place for communication is a great start, but how you encourage people to use them will be crucial. If the new hire is just staring at a bunch of unfamiliar names on a Slack channel, they may still feel isolated and unsure.

Introduce new team members to your team and encourage them to reach out to the new hire. You could even make group collaboration one of your performance measures so that you don’t have people sitting in their various silos (there’s always that one person who never seems to make an appearance on your Slack channel!).

GET TO KNOW TEAM MEMBERS

Remote teams just don’t work if they are merely a collection of individuals. Shared goals are necessary in order to see results. Of course, teamwork is often dependent on trust and trust is built through knowing someone better.

Obviously, “getting to know you” activities are easier in a physical rather than remote setting, but your challenge is to be able to work on that remotely too. Here are some ideas of things you can do:

Have regular team meetings where you allow some time for chit chat at the beginning, such as by asking each team member to answer a “get to know you” question.

Have themed days where each team member is asked to share a photo, video or example of theirs on your Slack channel. For example, you might go along with a current holiday theme or ask a question such as, “What’s the most embarrassing song on your playlist?”

Have each team member fully complete their profile on Slack or whichever communication channel you use. Make sure people can easily identify their job role and perhaps where they are located.

Make time for fun. This might include playing a web-based game together or organizing a trivia quiz.

If you can, set up team meet-ups or retreats where people have the opportunity to meet each other in person.

Keep a chart or list somewhere where everyone can access it which outlines the experience, skills, and specialities of each team member. Encourage the team to reach out to those with the appropriate skills if needed.

One of the important things to remember is that there has to be fun involved somewhere. In an office environment there will naturally be activities, jokes, or casual conversations that help build rapport. You’re going to need to work to recreate those things in your remote environment.

ENCOURAGING COLLABORATION

As we discussed earlier, even with the right technology in place to facilitate communication and collaboration, that doesn’t mean you’ll necessarily get people right into using it. Sometimes people are afraid they’ll stick out for the wrong reasons if they ask for help, especially if no one else seems to be. Sometimes it’s because they don’t feel comfortable reaching out because they don’t know someone well enough.

The last thing you want is to run into the situation where a remote team member feels so isolated that they don’t ask for help until things are really down to the wire. How can you encourage that vital collaboration?

Sometimes starting small is better. For example, rather than a general “Here’s the team, ask anyone for help”, allow people to get to know one or two individuals better at a time so they have that closer relationship.

For example, Zapier introduced “pair buddies.” This is where each team member is randomly paired with a colleague for a weekly call. They can catch up on work, life, or anything that comes to mind and keep some semblance of regular office social interaction.

As Zapier explain, these calls are a vital part of how they develop a strong team culture, even though the entire team is remote-based. Culture is a frequent concern of remote teams because it’s another one of those things that becomes more challenging to implement. These strategies for onboarding, communication, and collaboration go a long way toward helping with that too.

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FINAL THOUGHTS

The huge increase in teams working remotely means that we need to take every opportunity to find ways to develop the team dynamic remotely that we naturally build in-person.

You don’t want your remote workers operating in silos—you want to encourage them to collaborate with each other and work more effectively to get things done.

Develop strong channels of communication and proactively encourage your team members to use them to reach out to each other, even for casual chit chat which they’d usually get in an office scene.

Look for ways to allow team members to get to know each other and facilitate collaboration among them. Remember too, your team will take their cue from you as a founder or manager. If it’s good enough for them, make sure you’re getting in there too!


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