Almost every manager on the planet will agree that team building is hard. Factor in geographic distance and you’ll find it even more challenging to keep your team members integrated—especially if you don’t have a solid plan.
The good news: Understanding how to build a cohesive distributed team is a skill that managers and entrepreneurs can learn. Better yet, it’s a skill that offers you immediate—and often significant—advantages over your competitors. Some of the most successful companies in the world, like Automattic (the parent company of WordPress), has documented their battle-tested strategies for building remote teams.
I work at NYC-based Andela, live in Atlanta, and manage a tech team scattered across the globe—including both coasts of the U.S. and multiple locations in Nigeria, Romania, India, and Nepal. Here are the five best practices that I've found most valuable in building and supporting distributed teams.
1. Establish Bonds of Friendship and Empathy
The more fully you can empathize with one another, the easier it becomes to collaborate as a team. In a recent study, MIT professors found that one of the most important ingredients in a smart team was the ability to “consider and keep track of what other people feel, know, and believe,” otherwise known as “Theory of Mind.” This held true regardless of whether the team worked offline or online.
In other words, effective collaboration hinges on a rich, deep understanding of your employees' perspectives. That means you might need to invest in travel—if it’s feasible—at the start of the relationship to really get to know your new team member face-to-face and build rapport. Then, keep those personal connections alive and meaningful over time by encouraging the team to discuss topics other than work—just like they would over coffee and snacks in the office. It makes a difference.
2. Pair Up Remote Workers
“Pair programming,” the practice of having two individuals work together to develop code, is frequently cited as a best practice for developing software. Qualitative and quantitative evidence suggests that when developers work in pairs, they work “more than twice as fast,” make fewer mistakes, and design better code. The benefits can even carry over to pairing up to do non-programming tasks.
Additionally, when people are paired up, they learn to communicate more easily and often, and to share (rather than hide) problems and solutions—all of which increases overall information flow and team alignment. One team leader observed that after pairing up developers, his fragmented team began to have “real conversations…they actually began to enjoy and trust each other.” They turned from a “random collection of six, bright talented individuals who didn’t work together” into a genuine team.
To effectively pair up workers, remember that pairing is a skill that does not come automatically to most people. It takes concerted effort and practice to instill pairing in your culture (and get your team excited about it).
3. Provide Shared Purpose via Regular Recognition
Aligning everyone’s goals through a common purpose and regularly recognizing each person’s contribution to that purpose is essential for team building. The benefits of these practices have been well-documented in business literature, and they are especially important when working with remote colleagues. When someone is not in the office, he or she will miss out on the regular reinforcement of the team’s mission that happens in the context of casual conversations and spontaneous celebrations. As manager, you must have a system to make sure that your remote staff still feels included.
At Andela, for example, our goal is to train 100,000 young people in Africa as software developers over the next 10 years. We align everyone with that goal by leveraging the OKR system popularized by Google and other Silicon Valley heavyweights. OKR stands for Objectives and Key Results; it's a precise way of defining key projects that people are working on each quarter. Every week, during one-on-one meetings with members of my distributed team, we review progress on their OKRs. I make sure to recognize progress privately, but also in public ways, such as callouts during our weekly global staff meetings.
4. Empower Team Members
Remote employees require freedom and responsibility to operate independently (i.e., work they can accomplish that doesn’t require a manager’s approval). Frequent escalation to a supervisor slows down both work processes and the pace of learning, since team members (especially more junior ones) miss out on important learning opportunities that come from having to solve problems for themselves.
As a manager, plan your assignments for remote workers so that they include a variety of different kinds of tasks. Many will require collaboration, but make sure that at least some can be completed individually (without having to wait on colleagues or approval).
5. Encourage Over-Communication
All of the aforementioned best practices hinge on frequent and regular communication—perhaps more than will be familiar to you or any of your team members. It works best when remote colleagues are integrated into the team’s communication channels. Try instant messaging platforms such as Slack or video-conferencing tools such as Zoom.
Forging connectivity on a remote team requires effort. But it can be done, and when it’s done right, your tight-knit, high-functioning team will thank you.