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What’s the glue that sticks remote teams together?

In the last couple of months the world was forced to a quarantine and companies to figure out how to organize their work remotely practically overnight.

Managing a fully remote team brings a new set of challenges that add to your day to day ones. It’s definitely something that can take a while to learn and master. What happens when your colleagues are not a few feet away or in the other room to ask a quick question? What happens to spontaneous conversations that spark from running into someone on the hallway? How do you keep morale up? How do you preserve a sense of unity? Don’t worry, we’ve been down this road way before Covid-19 hit.

At CIMA, our team has been dealing with the challenges of remote teams from different time zones and cultures around the world for almost a decade. We know this cultural shift will take a toll on companies who were until recently operating with their staff on site. But without an end in sight for this crisis, we want to offer some words of wisdom born out of our successes and bumps we found along the way:

Face time as much as you can. Yes, not seeing each others’ faces anymore can dehumanize working relationships. More than half of human communication is nonverbal. With so many free options to choose from, it’s more important than ever to do it every time you can. This is especially crucial if your team is used to working together in the same space: the sudden disrupture in that visual contact could have a deep impact in your daily interactions, team morale and, ultimately, productivity. Missing each other’s facial expressions might also lead to a lot more misunderstandings.
Chat with everyone in your team. We get it, chatting or calling others all the

time can get tiring. Multiple conversations happening at the same time gets overwhelming fast. However, just relying on email is an easy way to miss important input from your team members. Regularly checking in with individuals will be key to keep communication flowing now that you guys won’t be sharing that cup of coffee in the break room. Silos are extremely common on fully remote teams. People can build up a backlog of “unspoken things”. Your job as a manager will be to purposely create the right space for everyone to speak their mind.

Make time for small talk, we all have tight deadlines but building rapport is what will help you work out your communication issues. Productivity is our god. We tend to disregard how much bonding with each other can help us collaborate in a healthier way. Chatting about your day, your kids, a movie you saw can help bridge the gap, help you bond and understand who you’re working with. Additionally, it helps everyone to relax a bit, especially right now when everyone is a little uptight and in some cases isolated at home. We can all use a little more social life right now.

Build a culture of adding people to calls. If you’re thinking “Tom should be involved in this conversation”, then just call him. Current software tools make any excuse you may have invalid (slack/ hangouts/ zoom). This helps reducing the friction of looping someone in late. Making sure you have the right people on a call can make projects a lot more efficient. By involving all the responsible parties you won’t have to repeat the same message multiple times and you make sure everyone is on the same page. Decisions are then made by and agreed by the whole team. Huge time saver.

Focus on results, not how long it takes. Tracking the time your team is “online” will tell you little about their productivity. Instead use project or time tracking tools. Make sure your project metrics are in order: project management tools like Jira let you keep dashboards with charts that speak of velocity and efficiency. Using these on retros can be eye opening for your team to understand their own performance and start the right conversations about what’s happening behind the data.

Establish a culture of trust and ownership. It can make managers uneasy not being able to see their team members working with their own eyes like they would in a regular office space. This can generate a tendency to be the “helicopter manager” who checks in way too often or even start micromanaging people . Don’t fret. In our experience, you will notice quickly enough if you’re not getting the results you expect. How so? If someone is falling behind you will rapidly notice red flags on their communication patterns: delayed responses to emails and messages, showing up late or not at all to meetings or delivery dates being missed consistently.

Get together face to face at least 4 times a year, use the energy of these meet ups to allow for team bonding. Even if you’ve managed to succeed in running a fully remote operation, this face to face time is important: people who have never interacted with each other might meet, conversations happen in a spontaneous way that would otherwise never happen.

Have quarterly one-on-ones to talk about performance or what your team members need to improve their work. Feedback for remote teams becomes another esencial tool to make everyone feel part of the team, a reminder that someone is following up on them, their career progress and goals. Basically, it strengthens the sense of belonging.

In short, the most important piece of the remote work puzzle is communication as it is on any other work environment. But in the case of working apart from each other, there needs to be extra emphasis on generating the right spaces for it to happen. You won’t be able to tap on your coworker’s shoulder to ask a question, you will probably have to do an extra effort to stay in tune with your team and make sure they are also in tune with one another. In this context, communication needs to be more purposeful than ever, be used efficiently and effectively.
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