Building Better Relationships as a Remote Team

Relationship building remote teams.
Last week as I was browsing Twitter, I saw a question that I've heard time and time again in remote work circles.

"How do you maintain a team culture and relationships between team members when you’re not all working in the same physical space?"

This is a great question and is at the core of many remote work debates. This might be the most important question that needs to be addressed when a team or company considers working remotely.

I shared some suggestions on Twitter, but I thought I'd write a longer post on the topic and do a deep dive. I've recently written articles on the factors causing the rise of remote work as well as what's holding remote work back. Why not write another post?

In this post, we will cover:

  1. Why relationship building is important at work
  2. What is currently missing when working remotely
  3. The #1 thing to optimize for as a distributed team
  4. Specific ideas for how you can build and maintain relationships as a remote team.

Why building relationships is important

To start, some people may say, "I'm at work to do work, not become friends with people."

I can empathize with this point, as the goal of employment should be to produce an output, but building relationships with coworkers can have an impact on the work that you do. In other words, producing an output and having friends is not mutually exclusive. You should probably do both of them.

Here's a couple of data points to illustrate:

  • According to Gallup, if you have a "best friend at work" you will be more engaged, produce a higher quality product, and have a higher wellbeing.
  • Building relationships with others (especially in other departments) can help you become more of a central connector inside an organization.
  • There are health benefits to having strong social support systems.

What are remote teams missing out on?

The next point I'd like to bring up is that this question around relationship-building as a remote team assumes that something is missing compared to a co-located environment.

True.

While some remote work advocates might be offended by this notion, the reality is that it's tougher to build and maintain relationships from afar. Let's not kid ourselves here.

Why is this the case? The reality is that face-to-face (F2F) interactions have a variety of benefits, which I've listed below:

F2F = way more data points to interpret

Face-to-face interaction is a much "richer" way of communicating as it activates a variety of senses. In-person interaction is the like HD video of communication because of:

  • Tone
  • Body language
  • Eye contact (see benefits here)
  • Touching (i.e. - shaking hands, etc)

When you have more data points coming in, it can also help you process the meaning behind the message. With this being said, having a video call can help bridge the gap too. It's not as real as an in-person meeting, but it's the next best thing.

More opportunities for informal conversation

This next point is important. Many remote workers will tell you that they miss the water cooler conversations that an office environment provides. I think it's safe to say these people are not talking about taking a stroll to grab a drink of water, but instead, they miss the opportunity to have informal conversations.

Informal conversations is another name for small-talk. These conversations can be work related, or it could be related to a weekend side-project, family, hobbies, or something else outside of work.

A few examples of when small-talk might happen:

  • Grabbing lunch/coffee with a coworker
  • Talking before/after a Monday morning staff meeting
  • Sipping on water around the water cooler

If you want to build and maintain healthy working relationships as a remote team, you need to find a way to reproduce more of the informal conversations that a co-located environment provides.

Please note - I don't think all water cooler conversations need to be reproduced, as this can be taken too far and can actually reduce productivity. 

Most important: the people you work with must be more than words on a screen

“I don't like that man. I must get to know him better.” - Abraham Lincoln

At times, when working on a distributed team I've felt like the people I work with are just words on a screen. They feel kind of like robots. 

Quite frankly, this is a bad place to be and it has an impact on your work. You should feel some personal connection to the people that you work with. I'm not advocating for becoming best friends with the people you work with, but learning a bit more about them can help you work better.

For example, I had a 1-1 meeting with an old coworker several months ago. She shared that her parents were in the process of escaping from Venezuela and the insanity currently happening there. I remember being floored by this conversation. I can't imagine trying to help my family escape a country, while still going to work everyday.

Another example - a coworker is a new dad and the baby is experiencing some issues. If I didn't have context about this, I might wonder why he has to abruptly take a day off. By having an idea about what his family is going through, it helps me walk in their shoes and be more empathetic.

Getting to know people helps you become a better person and improves your productivity. This is the #1 variable to optimize for - the people you work with have to be more than words on a screen. I outline other challenges with remote work in this post.

In the next section, I will outline specific strategies you can use to build better relationships as a remote team.

Specific Strategies

These strategies are a mixture of best-practices I've documented on how to build better relationships as a remote team, but these also are based on personal experience as a remote worker for 5+ years.

1.) Meet up in person

Some remote advocates downplay the importance of meeting up in person, but thoughtful, in-person meet ups or retreats are one of the most impactful levers you have at your disposal. This is a key component of distributed companies like Zapier, Gitlab, Buffer, and others.

I've found that meeting up a few times a year is ideal to maintain connections and relationships. You may also consider having new hires meet up in-person with their manager to speed up the pace of onboarding and knowledge transfer.

A major reason why meeting up in-person is so helpful is because it creates an opportunity to have richer discussion around high-level concepts like company strategy, but it also creates a perfect place for informal discussion and getting to know others.

A couple recommendations for company/team meetups:

  1. Don't make it all about work - sure, you should take some time to get stuff done, but you should also take advantage of the opportunity to do team-building activities and other activities you can't do on a regular basis.
  2. The little things matter - some of my fondest memories of remote team meetups are having dinner with coworkers and go-carting. There's no need to overcomplicate this.

2.) Create a user manual for working with you

Next up, I recommend you create a user manual to working with you. Here's how the idea works:

"The user manual is a “how to work with me” guide: It outlines what you like, what you don’t like, how you work best. It was something these CEOs would give their team members when they joined the company in order to shorten the learning curve of working with them. It’s a “cheat sheet” of sorts, giving employees a way to quickly and efficiently learn about executives, which in turn allows them to work together more effectively." - source

The process of creating a user manual speeds up the lessons learned from informal conversations by being explicit through documentation. Typically, this is only learned over time - through trial and error.

Questions to answer:

  • What are some honest, unfiltered things about you?
  • What drives you nuts?
  • What’s the best way to communicate with you? Slack? Email?
  • How do you like to get feedback?
  • How do you give feedback?

Here's an example profile worth checking out.

3.) Take a personality test

I'd also recommend taking a personality test and sharing it with your team. One advantage of a personality test is that it creates a structured way to think about differences between people - the user manual is much more free-form and unstructured.

A personality test can tease out concepts that people would have trouble documenting on their own. For example, here's my personality profile below:

Personality Profile
You should not treat personality insights as hard facts (as personality tests try to measure behavioral tendencies that can change over time), but instead as a mental model for how you can communicate better with someone you don't know very well.

4.) Share hobbies & fun facts

Another strategy to help you connect with coworkers is to share hobbies and other fun facts. You can do this in a variety of ways, but I'd recommend documenting this in a Google Doc along with your user manual & personality insights. Then, it's something people can reference over time, whether they've been working at the company for years or recently joined.

At a previous company, if someone new joined the team, we'd do an Ask-Me-Anything (AMA) over Slack. It was a fun way to learn about new people.

As you can see, these are strategies you can use to encourage informal discussion, kickstart conversations as a team, and ensure that the people you work with don't feel like a robot.

5.) Create a ongoing feedback loop

If you followed the strategies above, you should have a better understanding of the people you work with, but simply knowing fun facts and personality information is not enough. Like all relationships, it takes ongoing work to maintain them.

That's why you need to create a regular feedback loop with each person on your team. If you create a regular cadence where you can uncover potential problems, it will help you stop fires when they are a small spark.

The best way to do this is by holding regular 1-1 meetings with each person on your team. If you aren't holding regular 1-1s with your team, you will probably have trouble leading a remote team. It's like you are flying blind - at some point you will crash.

6.) Intentionally start meetings with small-talk

Another strategy is to intentionally start meetings with ~5 minutes of small-talk. While this may not be the most efficient way of working, it creates a habit of encouraging some informal conversation and primes people for the discussion as well.

As someone who hates inefficient meetings, make sure to create a clean break between small talk and the reason for holding the meeting. I think of this as switching from one mode to another. The small-talk reminds you that the people you are working with are real people.

7.) Create a dedicated space for informal conversation

Another relatively simple solution is to create a dedicated space for water cooler discussion, like a dedicated Slack channel. A dedicated space encourages people to share tidbits about who they are and what they might be doing outside of work.

While some people may participate a lot more than others, this can be another way to encourage informal discussion.

Ben Working
8.) Say "thank-you" more than you do now

Another strategy to build better relationships as a remote team is to create habits around saying thank-you. An unfortunate reality is that people know they should give recognition more than they do now, but because it's not a habit, it's easy to forget.

So what do you do?

If you use Friday, you can make sending kudos (recognition) part of your everyday workflow by mapping it to existing workplace behaviors.

For example, when submitting a daily standup, you also can say thanks to coworkers as part of the submission process. The same applies for status updates, check-ins, or other communication workflows you have setup.

Another advantage to this approach is that people are more likely to say thank-you on a regular basis (as they see the prompts frequently, increasing the likelihood that they will do it).

Kudos Example
9.) Consider "pairing"

Another option is to pair up coworkers as a way to kickstart new connections (this should probably be opt-in as not everyone would want to do this).

For example, Donut is a Slack app that will randomly pair people together as a way to connect with people you may not normally work with. This is a clever way to build relationships at work. It may not drive deep, meaningful conversations, but it certainly does increase workplace serendipity!

You could apply a similar principle with new hires, connecting them with a buddy or someone they can talk to if they have questions.

10.) Establish dedicated calls for informal discussion

Another approach I've seen is when people intentionally schedule time for informal conversations. For example, you could have a lunch time discussion, a book club, or a Friday afternoon "happy hour" call.

I like this approach but think it should be optional or held on an infrequent basis. I'd personally rather use the time to do work or leave early and hang out with my family. While I appreciate the gesture and effort, I'd prefer to bake getting to know people into my everyday calls and meetings.

11.) Remember key dates and do something about it

This final point is an area where there's a lot of low-hanging fruit and I'm continually surprised that more people don't do this. For the people on your team or inside your company, you should remember two key dates and mark them on your calendar:

  • The date the employee was hired
  • The birthday of the employee

The idea is simple - you should celebrate these dates with the person. Perhaps, you buy them a small gift or send a gift card. Maybe you celebrate as a team. It doesn't have to be crazy. It turns out birthdays and work anniversaries are when people typically quit their job, so maybe you could do something to make someone's day.

In Conclusion

Building and maintaining relationships isn't easy as a distributed team, but there are playbooks that you can follow to become more effective. Still, I recommend that you meet up in person periodically. It will have a huge impact on how you work.

I'll continue to update this post over time to share other lessons learned. I'm also writing a book on distributed work if you'd like to learn more. If you have other suggestions or ideas, please reach out on Twitter.