Creating Cohesion on a Remote Team

The nature of how we ‘team’ is changing.

A growing number of leaders, managers, and organizations are approaching The People Piece for support on how to navigate the complexity of leading remote and global teams.

They wonder how to drive engagement and avoid isolation with remote employees. How to navigate team dynamics that naturally emerge when people don’t sit in the same room together and where cultural dynamics and communication styles vary. How to create team cohesion when employees haven’t met in person, or even when they, as leaders and managers, have never been across the table from many of their team members.

While navigating all those factors may feel daunting, creating cohesion on a remote team is not significantly different than bringing a team together that sits in the same office. It’s all about intentionality and being explicit rather than resting on the laurels of the implicit culture that develops. And it’s about how you prioritize your time as a leader and manager, creating clear agreements and expectations, and making space for meaningful human connection.

We too are a remote team at The People Piece. We don’t have a central office. Our team members are spread across the country, from New York to California. Below are the practices we’ve incorporated along the way and have shared with our partners around the world.

Design an alliance around communication and expectations

A designed alliance is a valuable tool that allows you to collaborate and create a set of agreements for the team that act as a foundation and constitution for how the group interacts. The key is to develop your alliance together, because as Patrick Lencioni says, ‘If you can’t weigh in, you can’t buy-in.’

A designed alliance can be especially poignant when navigating cultural differences. It allows the team to develop a shared team culture even when different cultural aspects are present.

Below are questions that can be used to facilitate the creation of a designed alliance.

What values and behaviors do we commit to as a team?

  • How will we handle disagreements, challenges, or differences of opinion? Constructive feedback or accountability?

  • What are our preferred methods/platforms for communication and when do we use them?

  • What’s our commitment around response timeframes when we’re in different time zones?

  • How often will we meet as a whole team?

  • What can we count on from each other?

  • How will we keep one another informed between meetings?

  • How often will we check in on how we’re following our agreements in the alliance and update?

Once you’ve explored these questions and crafted agreements as a team, create a shared document or post on a team site. Regularly revisit and assess how you’re living your alliance during your team meetings. Celebrate and recognize each other when you notice each other acting in alignment even when it was challenging. The designed alliance can also be used as a tool for accountability when behaviors emerge that are out of alignment.

Make time for personal connection

It’s easy to feel like time is compressed when working with a remote team and that you just need to “get down to business” when you have a team meeting. But this is where disconnection happens and engagement suffers. As Gallup found in their study of over 12 million knowledge workers, feeling like someone at work cares about you as a person is a key factor of employee engagement.

So how can you cultivate this when sitting together at lunch or swinging by someone’s office isn’t an option?

Create a ritual for connection. At the start of every People Piece team meeting, we allow for 2 minutes of breathing to ensure we’re arriving to our meeting grounded and with reduced distraction. We then briefly check in, sharing how we’re coming to the meeting, what’s alive or challenging for us, what we’re excited about, or something interesting we’re up to. This unscripted time gives us a chance to connect as human beings and gain insight into each other’s lives in an authentic and meaningful way.

Another great practice is to start your meeting by asking a provocative question that invites personal sharing from the entire team. You can assign the task or ask for a volunteer each week to come up with a question to ask the group. You can put time limits on each person’s response to ensure all voices are heard and also to keep the exercise directed. Try these questions to stir personal connection:

  • Share a book that has impacted you the most, and why?

  • Who is a mentor in your life right now and what are you learning from them?

  • What are you doing to develop yourself this month?

Prioritize 1:1s and meet on video

It’s widely understood that 1:1s are among the most impactful tools to drive engagement and connection, but sadly they often get pushed by the wayside for the urgent. When this happens it’s easy for a remote team member to feel disconnected or even forgotten when the majority of communication happens asynchronously. When leading a remote team, prioritizing and sticking to weekly or bi-weekly 1:1s for a minimum of 20 minutes on video can make all the difference. Being on video invites both of you to be present, listen better, and creates the space for more meaningful connection.

There are a host of benefits to maintaining regularity with your 1:1s. During the 1:1, the remote members of your team - and you - gain insight and knowledge, grow trust, and set goals together. Your remote team member has a moment to experience your investment in his or her success, engagement, and growth. An added benefit is that team needs, barriers, and opportunities become more visible, allowing you to strategically address them in ways that heighten a remote team’s contributions.

There are a variety of ways to focus your 1:1s so they don’t feel empty and redundant, and to make sure you’re getting the most of the time together. The key is to communicate the focus of your 1:1 with your remote team member ahead of time, to avoid radio silence, and ensure they are prepared for an active discussion.

The key is not falling into the trap of your 1:1s being focused only on the tactical and leveraging the time to connect on these different areas:

Updating & Unblocking: For status updates on projects, OKRs, tasks, and to remove obstacles and problem solve to encourage your team member’s productivity.

Growing Trust: To deepen personal connections and allow your remote team members to bring up concerns or frustrations, or even uncomfortable issues like team dynamics or truths about your leadership style.

Career Development: To identify your team member’s career and development goals and work with them to craft a plan.

Adding these three strategies to your approach will not only more deeply engage your remote team, it will cultivate a level of trust, cohesion and connection that is at the foundation of any high-performing team, no matter where you are located.

Jess, Roni, and the People Piece Team

Jess Peabody has over 15 years of leadership and training experience, with a track record of creating high performing and healthy teams. She brings an on-the-ground understanding of being a leader of 4 to 400 people in both a nonprofit startup environment and well established for profit organizations. Clients appreciate her for her insights and experiences with conscious business practices, her holistic and innovative approaches to building company culture, her years of experience in large-scale business operations, and her eye for strategic planning and change management. Jess manages programs at The People Piece, including discovery, design, training and team development.

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