Building Culture and Trust with Remote Teams

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Mar 24, 2020
This article is part of a series called Remote Work.

A new wave of factors are pushing company teams to become increasingly remote and distributed. Factors such as emerging new talent pools across the world, the democratization of technology, pervasive and unfettered access to sophisticated education tools, loosening of labor regulations, and much more, have played a critical role in ushering in this new era of work. Even the very definition of what a “remote” team looks like has rapidly evolved. Historically, the idea of a “remote” worker used to conjure up images of distributed teams in disparate geographical locations. Today, however, we mean something more nuanced. These days, “remote” workers are often comprised of employees who frequently work from home, whether that be regularly or just in special circumstances (i.e., being sick or on maternity/paternity leave). The term even encompasses those of us who perform better when we work from someplace other than our regular “work desk.” Especially for those of us with creative jobs that consist of more agile workflows, it’s increasingly important to expand our ability to be unshackled from our desk and define and design the best culture for incorporating remote teams in this “new normal.” It’s not just a question of if you need to address this change, but rather when – and how – you will be ready to embrace this workplace revolution.

Here are a few items to consider as you build the right remote working process for your team.

Establish a way to convey “how and why” decisions are made

Leaders need to be able to effectively communicate the reasons behind company-wide decisions properly if remote teams are to understand how to operate.  As business cycles become increasingly faster, the teams that are most aligned and in sync with leaders’ priorities are the best equipped to work productively off-site. Using detailed, well-written documents, presentations, and slides that clearly articulate company strategy and vision are important to get right. While on-site team members can quickly call an “all hands on deck” in-person meeting, it’s much harder to have distributed teams come together in the same manner. For distributed teams, using a combination of text, voice & video is a great way to formally download the details of what messages to rally behind and why said decisions are being made.

Implement company-wide “show-and-tell” events

A dynamic that often plagues remote teams is the nagging yet intangible feeling of disconnect from each other and central headquarters. Remote teams often feel like they don’t have enough visibility into what’s going on at large. One way to foster a culture of inclusiveness in such teams is to implement simple “show-and-tell” video events where small groups of employees can get together and discuss their latest prototypes, talk about the most recent partnerships or just use the time as an opportunity to celebrate wins. This not only provides a medium where teams can receive feedback but also gets the entire organization invested in each others’ work.

Enable creative ways to bond socially

Traditional teams are fortunate in that social bonding comes more naturally, since employees can decide to chat at the water cooler or even head to the local pub for an after-work drink. Remote teams, on the other hand, don’t have the same instances of interaction available, so it’s important to “manufacture” ways to bond socially. In fact, Google encourages their employees to simply catch up and have coffee or breakfast over a video chat with other teammates. Creating experiences where teammates can bond remotely becomes important in building that element of trust and camaraderie. This is especially important when you have international teams with a mixture of cultures, as there can be a learning curve to understanding how your teammates prefer to operate.

Get rid of “meeting” culture and enable spontaneous conversations across teams

The most creative solutions to problems, decisions and ideas often happen in informal interactions like those during conversations at the watercooler where people can bounce ideas around with one another. With remote teams, it’s critical to create a culture where teams are able to talk to each other spontaneously. Using video and audio-based tools typically allow for more organic dialogues and intuitive interactions. Formal, scheduled meetings as a mechanism to drive alignment between remote and central teams is mostly a recipe for chaos for several powerful reasons, the least of which being people’s availability and attention cannot usually converge into the same time slots. It is precisely because serendipitous conversations form the bedrock of innovation in companies that it’s crucial to build a culture that encourages small groups for individuals to communicate with each other frequently and freely.

Empower teams with the right tools

Technology today truly enables teams to work effectively. We have powerful tools that drive collaboration, more efficient tracking of projects and goals, web conferencing, brainstorming, and a lot more. It’s important to utilize this emerging tech in a way that encourages widespread yet deep cross-functional collaboration. It’s also a best practice to decentralize these choices and allow our teams to choose the “best tool for the job.” In fact, the very process of reaching a consensus on what tech to embrace for a team’s own workflows is a very empowering and reinforcing for the team dynamic. This is bound to drive efficiency and clarity across teams within any organization.

In conclusion

All in all, recognizing and defining what works for remote teams most effectively is an emerging science. Unlike traditional work setups, which have decades of research behind them describing the best ways to set up an office space that enables team success, we are entering uncharted territory when we talk about virtual and distributed teams. We know from experience that water cooler banter, hallway conversations, company events, and inter-team lunches are all incredibly effective at building and reinforcing team bonds. There is no doubt that it’s still profoundly important to create a culture that promotes trust and camaraderie within teams, remote or not. And instead of reinventing the wheel, now, perhaps it’s time we translate some of those tried-and-true methods of team bonding into the digital equivalents. While it may not be the perfect solution, it’s certainly a great start.

This article is part of a series called Remote Work.