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Build and sustain high-performing remote teams (part one)

The topic of remote teams is particularly close to my heart – I spent virtually all my professional life dealing with a remote setup in one way or anotherI have seen the good, the bad and the ugly.  

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A couple of weeks ago I was at devopsdays Zurich. A lot of content, great atmosphere and a fantastic venue where everything ran like clockwork (how typically Swiss 😉). There was a broad range of topics, including Nollay Daley’s “What Collocated Teams Can Learn From Remote Teams”. 

Listening to Nollay I reflected (again) on my own experiences. My wife and I lived in different countries when we met. I did the last couple of years of my Master’s degree remotely. It was the same at work, over the last 20+ years I have worked with people all over the world – different nationalities, cultures, languages and more. And I loved it. It convinced me that there is enormous value in the resulting diversity of thoughts and ideas.  

At the same time building and managing distributed teams is not an easy task. I would like to share with you some of the tips and strategies I developed over the years. Nollay’s presentation was structured around three core topicsEmpathy, Autonomy, and Culture of writing stuff down. I will adopt a similar split for a mini-series on building high-performing distributed teams.  

Let’s start with empathy. 

Don’t forget we are all human

In the last 20 years, it has become extremely easy to communicate instantaneously with virtually anybody in the world. We are all digitally connected. But do we always appreciate that there is a living and breathing person at the other end of the world? AI might be making great strides, but true collaboration still happens among humans.  

Don’t forget this, especially for the people you frequently collaborate with. It could be as trivial as making an effort to learn how to pronounce their names. Having a look at the picture to create a mental image of who you are talking with. Know where that person is located and some basic facts: the timezone, current season, famous celebrities, economy, public holidays and their meaning. These are just examples – you should base it on what you care about at home.  

 “Don’t treat people far away as faceless resources – it damages collaboration and impacts business outcomes.”

The bottom line is – don’t treat people far away as faceless resources with a user id. Not just because it is not nice” but because it damages collaboration and impacts business outcomes. The more complex the project, the bigger the impact. If there is one thing you take away from the article, I hope it’s this.  

Treat people with respect regardless of where they are 

Don’t divide projects and work purely based on locations. Yes, a lot of jobs are being moved around the world and the driver is usually cost. Unfortunately, many people make an automatic assumption that lower costs equal lower capabilities and competencies. If you treat certain locations as second-class (even subconsciously), you will rapidly demotivate and lose your best people there. It will become a self-fulfilling prophecy. It makes no business sense.  

“If you treat certain locations as second-class, you will rapidly demotivate and lose your best people there”

Schedule regular dedicated 1-1 sessions, regardless of location.  Make sure everybody gets quality time with you to share feedback and exchange ideas. Stay focused throughout those 1-1s, the other side will sense if you are not giving them 100% attention. Find a quiet place to talk and consider a video call. Remember that your remote colleagues need the same amount of scheduled dedicated time (if not more) than the ones you share the office with. 

Do not use distance as an excuse to avoid difficult conversations. Nothing ever runs perfectly all the time. We all know we should address problems early and that open communication is key. The same rule applies in virtual teams – don’t procrastinate, tackle the issue quickly regardless of where it’s located. For the most difficult topics (like termination) make every effort to deliver the message in person. The individual will feel respected (despite the tough message) and the whole team will appreciate you going the extra mile. In the larger context, the time and money invested will pay off.   

Make a special effort to maintain social interactions 

Humans are social animals. Informal chats make work more fun, at times it’s the only thing that stops us from going insane. This is equally important in remote teams but you need to get more creative there. I’ll share a few ideas to get you started 

Introduce a check-in round in team meetings. Dedicate the first 2-3 minutes at a regular team meeting to sharing how everybody feels today. Are they happy? Tired? Did they sleep well? Perhaps their kids are ill and wake them up in the night? Is anything bothering them? Make it quick (20-30s per person) but not perfunctory, encourage everyone to quickly reflect before the meeting on how they feel. Notice how it influences the mood for the rest of the meeting.  

Build-in a time buffer for a bit of social chit-chat. Do you feel talking about holidays, family or hobbies while at work is a waste of time? I beg to differ. It is even more important for remote teams with no opportunities to connect after workEncourage building strong personal connections as it will directly translate into better collaboration. Just don’t spend whole meetings talking about the weather! 

“Strong personal connections directly translate into better collaboration”

Bring everyone’s personality and sense of humor into the meetings. Find ways to make people laugh. In one global team, we had a dedicated slot in our monthly videoconference for a non-work fun topic. A recent holiday, hilarious things kids did or any other entertaining topic anybody wanted to share. We loved it and the team was still doing it several years after I left.  

Meet in person 

What?!? Isn’t the whole point of distributed teams that they work remotely??? You got me. But meeting in person is about so much more than simply working. Despite all the technological advances (some companies use robot avatars!), nothing beats a true face-to-face interaction. Find a business reason to meet – it could be a team workshop, meeting with a client, anything. Be creative – make it as cost-efficient as possible, consider saving elsewhere but make it happen. It doesn’t have to be very frequent.  

Once a year may be enough to sustain personal connections. When you are just starting to build the team try to have the first get-together early but not too early. Give everybody a few months to establish their virtual relationships first. And finally – structure the meeting around two primary goals: building relationships and achieving a tangible business goal. In that order. 

 Conclusion

Communicating digitally shouldn’t stop us from being human. And being human is about so much more than just work. This is just my take on building personal connections. I am very curious to hear your thoughts – comments, alternative ideas, opposing views or scathing criticism are all welcome.  

I wish you a happy and productive collaboration – wherever you are in the world! 

If there’s anything else you’d like us to clarify, feel free to contact us directly, and we’ll happy to help you make the right choice for your company! 

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