Collaboration and project management tools are things that almost all managers rely on when running a distributed team, according to a survey of 500+ engineering leaders. But too often, these systems track the progress of projects without paying attention to the human beings working on them. People are more motivated and more satisfied when they’re connected to their coworkers. Psychological safety matters more to a team’s output than the individual skill of its members, according to Google’s Project Aristotle. “Things run more smoothly when I have a personal relationship with people I’m working with,” says Bradley Scott, VP of Technology Products at Andela, which has built distributed engineering teams for more than 150 global technology companies. “There’s more connective tissue and shared accountability. And it’s a lot more fun.”
Andela has been rigorous in measuring the factors that drive successful distributed teams. Interpersonal relationships, the company has found, drive team cohesion, which leads to increased productivity and lower turnover. Here are four concrete steps to develop these relationships:
Small talk is big.
Find as many ways as possible for people in all locations to share bits of their lives. It’s not a time waster to use a few minutes at the beginning of a video call to check in with people about what’s going out outside of work. Some teams at Andela have built Friday rituals where they post their weekend plans to a Slack chat in the form of emojis. “It always generates a conversation where you learn one or two things about someone you didn’t know before,” Scott says.
Celebrate and play together.
You can’t all be in the same bar at the same time, but there are creative ways to spread the good feeling around the world. Engagement party? Open up Facetime or Zoom so everybody can hear the toasts and make their own. Finish a new release? Order pizza for every office around the world. Holiday celebration? Try a global ugly sweater contest.
Encourage everyone to be seen in video calls.
Some distributed team members may be hesitant about turning on their video cameras, with excuses like, “It’s too early,” or “My office is messy.” Remind people that it’s not only okay, but highly encouraged to turn on the video wherever you are. “When I work from home, people see my guitar behind me,” Smith says. “That gets people talking about what music they like and helps develop relationships that go beyond day-to-day work.”
Lead by example.
Continue to reinforce the message that team members are treated equally regardless of location and circumstance. At Andela, formal evaluations between partners and developers include feedback on human factors, such as whether an employee blocked the camera during video calls, or a distributed developer felt like they regularly had all of the information they needed to do their work. “Leadership is discipline, education and empathy,” Smith says. “We have to constantly remind each other how much it sucks to be a thousand miles away and feel like you are shut out from all the fun.” Making small tweaks in the mindset of both distributed and co-located engineers can make all the difference in operating as a fully productive, distributed team.
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