Teamwork makes the dream work. I know, it’s a tired clichéd adage, but that doesn’t make it any less true, even when it comes to teams working in remote locations far from a centralized office.
So how do you instill a team mentality across time zones—or even oceans?
For that answer, we reached out to top-level executives across industries to see how they get their employees to mesh—no matter their location.
Establish the Culture You Want
For Rocco Baldassarre, founder and CEO of Zebra Advertisement, it all starts with “having the proper company culture and hiring people that fit that culture.” “Additionally,” Baldassarre says, “it is important to have the team work with a project manager to establish internal processes and avoid potential misunderstandings.”
From the get-go, communicate with your team members so they know exactly what is expected of them and how they will be evaluated. “A distributed environment puts much more emphasis on actually producing results than on ‘looking busy,'” says Andrew Berkowitz, founder and chief creative officer of TeamSnap. “When employees know they are being judged on results and not on what specific hours their butt is in a seat in the office, they feel more valued and more dedicated to the work and the team.”
Keep Communication Open—and Not Solely Work-Related
If you’re looking to build camaraderie among distributed team members, you need open lines of commutation, explains Rick Lepsinger, managing partner at OnPoint and co-author of the book Virtual Team Success: A Practical Guide to Working and Leading From a Distance.
“Be deliberate and proactive in reaching out to have non-work conversations—create moments of spontaneous and informal conversation just as if you were co-located,” says Lepsinger. “Create opportunities for the team to come together and interact virtually—celebrate success and occasions, group text during a sporting event, use video for individual calls and team meetings to replicate the characteristics of a face-to-face interaction.”
Berkowitz echoes that sentiment. “One of the nice things about working in a remote environment is that it democratizes communication,” he says. “In a remote environment, you have the advantage of being able to communicate equally with anybody in the company. For instance, we have a Slack channel dedicated to football, and you’ll find accountants in there talking to engineers talking to quality assurance testers talking to designers. In a physical company, those people might never interact.”
Use Video Conferencing—and Use it Often
Email should be the last resort of communication between virtual team members.
“Although it has the illusion of speed and efficiency, email is the least effective means of communication; it’s open to miscommunication and misunderstanding,” says Lepsinger. “Phone and video should be the primary means of communication.”
He goes on to say that virtual teams should “make it the norm, make sure everyone has the equipment and the bandwidth (which is much less of a problem today). Use collaborative software (GoToMeeting) along with video to replicate a face-to-face work environment.”
Berkowitz agrees. “We are constantly in video conferences—for us, it’s as natural as stepping into somebody’s office to have a quick conversation,” he says. “We very rarely talk on the phone because you lose so many nonverbal visual cues that way. Plus, in a remote environment, it’s just nice to see other people face-to-face so you feel connected.”
For Baldassarre, “Videos are necessary and should be used mandatorily to establish some sort of personal connection. I recommend having a dress code as well to keep the environment professional.”
Make Time for Personal Interactions During Calls
“When everybody hops onto a video meeting in the morning, expect to spend the first few minutes on social time, the same way you would chat when you first got to the office in a physical building,” says Berkowitz. “For some employees, this may be the first or only time during the day that they get to interact face-to-face with their coworkers. Don’t look at 5 to 10 minutes of chit-chat at the beginning of a meeting as wasted time, but rather as team-building social time.”
Know How to Best Leverage Video Calls
“First of all, if one person is remote, everybody should be remote—there’s absolutely nothing worse than having some of the people in a conference room and some of the people on video,” Berkowitz says. “The people on video inevitably get left out of the conversation. So even though it can feel weird, if there are a couple of people in one location, they should still get on to their individual computers for a video chat.”
It’s also vital to make sure everyone’s voice is heard during a video conference. “As a meeting facilitator, it’s important to look out for people who are uncomfortable butting in, and specifically solicit their opinions,” says Berkowitz. “You’ll occasionally find people who are reluctant to speak up because more aggressive conversationalists talk first. A skilled meeting facilitator will recognize who hasn’t talked and call on them.”
Meet Face-to-Face at Some Point
Baldassarre recommends face-to-face interactions at least twice a year. Other professionals we spoke with agree that in-person meetings are important.
“Our research found that virtual teams that met face-to-face within the first 90 days were more effective,” says Lepsinger. “The first planning meeting should be face-to-face; meet face-to-face whenever possible and when necessary, although even one face-to-face meeting helps lay the groundwork for improved interactions.”
For Berkowitz, his company plans annual summits for employees. “We find that it’s highly valuable to get everyone connected,” he says. “If you can afford it, and everybody is available to travel, it can certainly be a nice way to go.”
To sum it up, here a few things you can start doing today to create a greater sense of camaraderie with a remote team:
- Embrace pre-meeting chitchat
- Go out of your way once in awhile to talk about non-work topics
- Make sure everyone is using video conferencing
- Plan face-to-face get-togethers
Have tips of your own? Please share in the comments below!