It can be difficult to build great teams when all, or some, of your members work remotely. Whether it is an artifact of pandemic-related restrictions or the ways things have always been, there is no doubt that such an arrangement adds levels of nuance and challenge to supervisors and managers. At Build Great Teams, we combed through the evidence-based literature, combined it with our experience, and came up with this summary of tried-and-true techniques that can effectively bring remote teams together.

Communicating With Remote Teams

Let’s be honest. Everyone hates meetings that waste their time or simply could have been an email exchange. When we experience a good meeting, however, we remember the satisfaction we felt when agenda items were raised and resolved in a timely manner. With remote teams, the need for regular team and one-on-one meetings increases greatly so it is our responsibility as supervisors and managers to make them as productive as possible. Here are some general strategies that you can use to ensure this transpires:

  • Make sure you are covering wins and giving kudos in the meetings. Create and reinforce a culture of calling out each other’s successes and giving credit to others through modelling the behaviour yourself.
  • It is important to take this time to check to see whether your team members are overwhelmed, or underwhelmed, with the amount of work they have right now. 
  • To ensure the meetings are effective, consider using the agile methodology, or check out the book The Surprising Science of Meetings. If you are not a big fan of reading during the day or prefer to be more active when ingesting content, we recommend picking up the audiobook version instead.
  • Consider using online project management tools. We are fans of Trello but there are a large variety of tools in this domain.
  • Capitalize on the efficiency of voice calls over text chat services like Slack or Microsoft Teams. If you are text chatting for longer than ten minutes about something, switch to a voice or video call. It also helps to clear up misunderstandings – something I think we all have experienced when using text chat services.

Encouraging Casual Conversations

“Water-cooler conversations” are artifacts of the distant past for many remote team members. Those serendipitous moments where colleagues would gather, share stories and laughs, and socially bond with one another can indeed be difficult to recreate in online environments. There is a large difference, however, between difficult and unable. For remote teams, it is important to create intentional collisions by taking advantage of the breakout room features common on many virtual platforms. For example, you can intentionally split your team up into breakout rooms before the beginning of a meeting to allow for social connection and sharing. When the formal portion of the meeting transpires, you can recall them to the larger meeting space and proceed with the day’s agenda. Beyond using breakout activities, encouraging your team to utilize asynchronous text chat services, like Slack or Microsoft teams, for casual conversations can also be a good way to facilitate connection. It may be important, however, to set clear guidelines on what tools to use, and discourage other tool-use to keep communication open to all those interested.

Promoting Rituals for Belongingness and Inclusivity

With the nature of asynchronous virtual teams, not everyone finds themselves in the room when big decisions are made. This can lead some team members to feel alienated and estranged from the greater team climate. It is important to provide opportunities for all team members to contribute ideas in advance of formal meetings, as a way to facilitate belongingness and inclusivity. Here are some general reminders ideas that you can use to ensure everyone feels connected to the team:

  • Supervisors and managers have a responsibility and should be intentional in asking for input from all team members. Such techniques benefit those individuals who may work different hours than the majority of their team members, and those who may not feel comfortable sharing their ideas aloud in the presence of group members. 
  • Getting agendas to team members well in advance of meetings is critically important for remote teams. This way, the remote team members can get-up-to-speed on any issues that may have come up with their colleagues at the office, and begin considering potential solutions for challenges.
  • Some team members need more time than others to gather their confidence and thoughts to provide constructive input. It is important not to pressure them into providing answers on-the-spot or setting an arbitrary time-limit for decisions to be made within a meeting. Such techniques did not work in our schooling experiences, so we should not expect them to work within employment settings.
  • Activities that enable team members to get to know one another throughout the workday can be another way to boost belongingness. Utilizing polls, breakout rooms, and games like two truths and a lie are great fun while learning about your colleagues.
  • In the case of new hires, supervisors and managers should ensure their onboarding processes are even more robust for remote team members. Having every team member reach out to the newly hired individual and tell them how excited they are to have them on the team is a good way to establish inclusivity. 

Using Online Collaborative Tools

Replace the whiteboard with google docs or other online whiteboard when brainstorming. A pro tip here is that when you have meetings for your hybrid team, everyone needs to be on their own device so they can contribute. Having a few people together in a boardroom using one device, or hooked in through a meeting owl gets awkward and clunky for everyone. Meeting Owls are awesome, but not when you want online contributions.

MS Teams and Slack are great ways to enhance team communication no matter where people are, and when they are working. Again, it’s important to set boundaries around which tools are used for communication, and to ensure that the entire team is using the same tool.

Enhancing High Performing Teams

It is important to remember that remote teams and their team members can be just as effective and in-person cohorts. The difference that often prevents teams from maximizing their performance, whether remotely operated or not, comes down to whether the company prioritizes and enables relationships. Proactively building and strengthening relationships have been shown to increase employee engagement, morale, productivity, and corporate success. Supervisors and managers who truly care about the people on their team often experience great job satisfaction and reduced stress levels overall. Frankly, we want the whole team to affirm the emotions of others and choose their individual behaviours wisely. Showing blame and anger towards team members diminishes their trust, and we want to build it by being genuinely curious and treating each other with dignity and respect. For example, you could ask your team members some variation of “how can I help you be even better at what you do?”

Should you observe high levels of blame or anger within your organization, it may be wise to consider using Build Great Team’s completely free, research-informed, Conflict Resolution Style Assessment.

Focusing on Wellness

Focusing on team wellness is now seen as a vital component of productivity, effectiveness, and efficiency. It’s also just a great thing to do if you are a human being. To enhance wellness, we encounter over-communicating as a key strategy. To actualize this strategy, consider the following suggestions.

  • Supervisors or managers may ask about how people are feeling throughout the day, and emotionally check-in at meetings. 
  • Encouraging staff to take time for self-care, and model that. Staff appreciate seeing supervisors and managers placing boundaries on their working hours so they do not feel compelled to reply to messages at all hours of the day and night. This can especially be the case if you have team members in different time zones. 
  • Asking folks to add a line to their email signature that indicates a reply is only expected in the recipient’s normal working hours also goes a long way in setting appropriate wellness boundaries. 
  • Having fun at work is an essential component for staff wellness. Occasional meme posts, a #watercooler channel, and goofy zoom backgrounds on non-client calls can all help rejuvenate team members.

Gaining Advice From Those Who Get-It

Managing remote teams is new for many of us, and is becoming the new normal for many companies across the country. The professionals at Build Great Teams have been supporting small and large teams in distributed and remote environments for over a decade. Should you find yourself needing support with your team, please get in touch.

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