15 Ways Remote Companies Can Build Strong Teams

21 Aug 2019 5 min read

 

Working remotely is great for many reasons: a bigger talent pool, better work/life balance, more focus, and productivity. But it also has its challenges, with a need to implement more tools, processes, documentation and also put more effort into building a culture of transparency. Over the past 15 years, we've been embracing flexible work, with people having the liberty to work either fully or partly remotely. In this article, we explore some of the things we've learned and tips companies can follow to build stronger remote teams.

1. Communicate your story and the company vision

Telling your story and having a clear vision for your company is not only good for business, but they're also essential to your team's cohesion. The company story reminds people how you got there, while the vision statement sets the direction for the future. Defining the impact that the company wants to make on the world will also help the team better understand why their work matters and how their objectives align with the bigger picture. The goals for the vision are to inspire and engage the team.

2. Define your values

Values are the unique principles that inform how the vision will be achieved. Values should be clearly articulated and written down in a handbook, so everyone can read them as they on-board the team. Decisions should then be through the lens of the values. Since every new employee will have an impact on your culture, it’s important that you also recruit having those values in mind. Leaders should set an example by defining and then living by these principles. Values are not set in stone though, so as your team grows, you may want to reexamine them.

3. Organize work

Building the infrastructure that allows people to collaborate efficiently is essential. Teams should have access to different collaboration tools such as Slack, Mattermost or Riot for chat, XWiki for collaboration and knowledge management, Trello, OpenProject or GitLab for project and task management. At XWiki, we use Riot to keep in touch with the team and we love it. It's very easy to use and it's Open Source. Not surprisingly, most of our work is organized in XWiki, customized with apps to make it fit our exact needs.

online chat gif from canity

4. Build a culture of transparency and knowledge sharing

Knowledge sharing and solid processes should be at the heart of all distributed companies. They make onboarding easier and help drive transparency. Knowledge sharing also increases efficiency and minimizes friction as information becomes readily available for employees across different time zones.

At XWiki, we try to document knowledge as much as possible, through product and project documentation, knowledge bases, FAQs, onboarding guides, etc. A good rule of thumb is that whenever someone asks a question on a chat the answers should point as much as possible to documents. Of course, it's easier to post a direct answer on the chat, but it's more useful in the long run to store that answer in a document for later reference.

5. Recruit for soft skills, not just technical skills

When evaluating a potential employee it’s important to assess technical skills, but you should also look at soft skills and culture fit. Excellent communication and writing abilities are essential to thrive in a remote role.

Many distributed teams also find it useful to have the candidate do a small paid assignment before making a job offer. This will help the candidate get a better understanding of the job and it will help the team in better assessing the fit.

6. Make video calls

With non-verbal cues missing from written communication, using video as much as possible can be a good idea. While it doesn’t replace in-person interactions, it does help eliminate some of the loneliness and isolation that some remote workers eventually face. Tools such as Zoom and Google Hangouts are great options for organizing video calls. In the future, we might even work in a VR office altogether.

7. Have regular meetings

All hands are great for introducing new team members, making announcements, recognizing accomplishments, providing company statuses, answering questions. Many remote companies also have regular team meetings, project kick-offs, and retrospectives, as well as daily “stand-ups”.

team meetings

8. Organize company retreats

Chat is great, but nothing beats real face to face interactions. Regular company retreats are great opportunities for people to consolidate relationships that are mainly built virtually. You can find out more about how we organize our annual retreat by reading this article.

9. Strive for a balance between synchronous and asynchronous communication

The balance between synchronous and asynchronous communication is hard to achieve. For long discussions, important feedback and brainstorming, face time can be better. Async, however, is equally important when you’re trying to get into a state of flow and do the deep work. Many remote workers will say async is how they manage to get their work done. There are many ways of doing async, from email to chats, forums, and comments. You just have to pick the tools and the ratio that works best for you and your team.

10. Encourage company traditions

It’s easy to celebrate events and set up traditions when people see each other every day in the office, but there are things you can also do as a remote team. Some ideas include celebrating birthdays, organizing hackathons and other challenges, going on company and team offsite retreats.

11. Have a virtual water cooler

When you’re working in a virtual environment, you may end up talking only about work. It’s also easy to forget taking breaks. However, informal chats that go beyond work are essential for building rapport, keeping healthy, energized and productive. Don’t be afraid to use emoticons and gifs to convey emotion.

Donut is a great Slack extension that randomly pairs people from different teams. They’re then encouraged to chat about their lives and get to know each other better.

12. Provide and collect regular feedback

Critical feedback should be delivered face to face as much as possible. This way you can also see all the non-verbal cues, which are not visible via chat or email. A good rule of thumb is that if a chat escalates or is taking too long, it might be worth doing a video call instead. Trusting the team and assuming miscommunication (not bad intentions) are good principles to live by.

Collecting anonymous feedback is a great way to measure team happiness and also to see what may be improved across the board.

13. Do one on ones

Leading your team in a remote culture requires a lot of pro-activity. Since impromptu conversations are less likely to happen, it’s important to schedule a regular one-on-one with the team. You should try not to turn one on ones into status updates though. Having a shared online agenda can help with keeping the conversations on track. Creating a list of actionable items at the end can help follow through with the points discussed.

14. Measure employee performance

In a remote setting, employees may spend much of their time wondering whether they’re actually doing a good job, particularly if they worked in a traditional setting before. Productivity can’t be measured in the number of hours spent in the office, so it’s important to focus on setting objectives and measuring output. Metrics, coupled with the team’s feedback and one on ones should provide the context for measuring and improving performance.

15. Invest in the mental well-being of your team

Without an office to go to every day, people may end up feeling disconnected. On top of that, Impostor Syndrome might start creeping in. It's the feeling that we don’t deserve what we’ve earned and that others will expose us as frauds. It’s particularly an issue with remote work, where people don’t get to see you at your desk every day.

Keeping a record of accomplishments and providing/receiving timely feedback can help. Coworking spaces or professional networks can be great places to meet like-minded people and have more face to face interactions. Many companies offer a coworking stipend.

Most remote employees have the liberty to organize their time according to their needs, which is one of the main perks. But that can also easily backfire if the team stays connected 24/7. Companies should encourage breaks and discourage overtime.

fish tank gif from canity

If you’re interested in learning more about remote work, we also recommend:

As technology evolves, the way we think about work is being transformed and we’re bound to have more companies challenging the status quo and adopting a remote-first culture. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Silvia Macovei, Head of Cloud Business at XWiki

You may also be interested in: