Distributed teams — i.e. companies with employees spread over multiple locations, whether in small branch offices or working remotely — are on their way to becoming a new normal. Nearly one in five people are currently part of a distributed workforce. Before the end of the decade, an estimated three-quarters of companies will have distributed teams.
I’ve had plenty of firsthand experience here. Hootsuite has a dozen offices around the world, from Vancouver to New York, London and beyond. The huge upside here is that we’re able to reach a global customer base, in their language, in their time zone, on their terms. But building team spirit across offices on different continents, not to mention handling workflow, is no small task.
Technology is a huge help. Like most companies, we use a whole stack of familiar tools to stay connected and work together: Facebook Workplace for sharing team updates and live-streamed events; Hangouts for real-time video chats; Google Drive for document sharing and editing, etc. I send out a personal, weekly video update to the whole team, and we stream our company town halls live so everyone can participate and ask questions, regardless of location.
But all this technology is really just a tool. I’ve found that creating connection and building culture often comes down to much more basic stuff — seeing faces, sharing stories, getting to know a bit more about the people you work with and the places they come from. With that in mind, I wanted to put together a list of simple, low- or no-tech human tactics for bridging remote workforces.
Building team spirit across offices on different continents, not to mention handling workflow, is no small task.
In the spirit of “distributed teams,” I crowdsourced these tips from the 2 million or so incredible professionals who follow me on social media. Here are some of their top hacks from the frontlines (edited for length and clarity), with some commentary from me:
First, smile for the camera. “Video meetings. It’s amazing how much it transforms the interaction between colleagues when it starts to feel like you’re in the same room. Once video becomes almost standard, it makes remote offices feel far more connected.” — Tyler Davey, Business Development Manager at Amazon Web Services
Obvious one here, but probably the single most commonly mentioned hack. Whether you’re using Skype, Zoom, Google Hangouts or another platform, being able to see real human faces instantly creates a level of connection that’s hard to replicate via chat or phone. So turn those cameras on, all you wallflowers!
Virtual happy hours. “Create virtual happy hours and virtual parties that don’t simply mimic stationary events, but actually take advantage of what can be done differently and more effectively on camera.” — Ben Bisbee, Author of The Unashamed Guide to Virtual Management
This tip gets at one of the paradoxes of office life — some of the most important team building happens when work stops. But how do you replicate that remotely? One answer is to “schedule” happy hours, coffees, Halloween parties, etc. via video and keep work talk off limits.
Morale tours. “Executive leadership should visit regional offices regularly. President Lincoln is my favorite example of this. He would often visit his troops and spend one-on-one time hearing about their experiences. This allowed him to understand how morale was, as well as gain valuable insights into what his troops needed.” — Johnny Bravo, Senior Enterprise Sales Manager at Condeco
I’ll be the first to admit that finding time in executive calendars to visit offices remote offices can be challenging. But it’s invariably time well spent. At the end of the day, nothing replaces first-hand intel from a global office, and a visit from team leaders helps validate the hard work of distributed teams.
Overlapping hours. “Depending how spread out the team is geographically, set some core hours during the day where everyone is online together for a few hours. Similarly, have a commitment to be quickly available as much as possible over a bit of a wider set of hours.” — Michael Miner, Software Engineer at Hootsuite
This can be tricky if you’re on opposite time zones, but making sure everyone is online and reachable for part of the day can save endless back and forths on email and lots of confusion. I also like the point here about being open to a reach-out at other times — even if it’s just a quick text — if unexpected needs arise. BTW: Michael is a 10-year Hootsuite veteran and a remote working ninja if I ever met one.
The cupcake principle. “Make sure everyone gets the celebratory cupcake. Even the individual remote workers. We have so many food delivery services now, there is no excuse for everyone to not take part in a celebration.” — Thera Martens, Marketing Director at Visier
Love the cupcake delivery ideas. But I think the bigger principle that Thera is getting at here is that remote offices and teams shouldn’t feel like second-class citizens. It’s not always possible to have the same resources and amenities at all locations. But real efforts should be made to include everyone when it comes to big announcements and major company wins.
Karma points. “I would suggest having an appreciation platform where employees can send an ecard or nominate their coworkers. We have a program for both co-located and remote folks to use and sending a little note or thank you points goes a long way towards inclusion.” — Megan MacFadyen Sullivan, Manager of Product Management at Thomson Reuters
In its simplest form, this could simply be a dedicated channel on Slack or another platform for recognizing and praising coworkers who go above and beyond. (At Hootsuite, we have a Facebook Workplace group called Shout Outs.) The key isn’t really about prizes or gifts here, as much as just taking the time to stop and acknowledge people who may not physically be in your office.
Postcard exchange. “My fully remote team and I organized a postcard exchange (kind of like a secret Santa) and we sent postcards to each other from our home base.” — Regina López de Llergo, Social Media Strategist at ICUC
I think this is brilliant on a couple levels. For starters, it connects two people in a personal way — even if it is just to trade postcards. Second, there’s something special about getting old-fashioned mail. A postcard from an exotic locale, complete with stamps and handwritten note, is a lot more memorable than a virtual greeting.
Friendly competition. “We sponsor contests like “cutest four-legged officemates.” Of course, you need a social platform to support it and passionate moderators. But it helps bridge the miles and builds real connections.” — Suzanne Hopkins, Director of Product Management at Harris Computer
Nothing like a little friendly competition to cultivate team spirit. What I like about this suggestion is that it’s not about sales totals, customers or anything to do with work. Pets, sporting events, reality TV, etc. all make for great, low-pressure contests that can transcend borders and time zones. Plus, this is dead easy to do with voting tools inside platforms like Facebook.
Face time (not just Facetime). “Get remote teams together in person wherever you can — no virtual replacement for that. We budget bringing people from North America, South Africa and Europe together twice a year. Then, enshrine virtual connections as sacred, and model as leaders. — Laurie Bennett, Founding Partner at Within People
This one is tricky, for financial and environmental reasons. But I totally see where Laurie is coming from. Getting the whole team together in person, breaking bread, sharing stories, absorbing culture — all of that stuff is immensely important. It may not be something you can do every year, but it’s worthwhile as a goal.
Office ambassadors. “I always appreciate it when there’s a “remote liaison” in meetings — someone to watch the chat for questions and to speak up for us if people in the room forget we’re there!” — Casey Smith, Staff Technical Writer at Salesforce
Neat idea here and very easy to overlook. Your remote teams contribute to your company everyday, but do they have a literal seat at the table for key meetings? Are their voices being heard by senior management? Making sure remote offices have some kind of in-person “ambassador” at HQ — even just an ad hoc one — might help avoid this “out of sight, out of mind” issue.
Language bridging. “Key to engagement, especially for workers who have English as a second language, is to provide a detailed agenda in advance so that everyone gets comfortable with the topic and they can practice their role in advance. Many times remote workers will not speak up or engage because of being intimidated by the language.” — Willis Turner, President and CEO at SMEI
As someone struggling to improve my Spanish, I can relate to the challenge of communicating in another language. Having a detailed meeting agenda (and sticking to it) not only ensures that international participants can engage, it also makes for a better meeting for everyone.
Standing office hours. “One of my favorite hacks as a leader working remotely is having “open door” time slots for team members to jump online for quick counsel. It’s meant to be like “swinging by my desk” for a quick chat or to ask a burning question, no appointment needed — just as you would in a physical office.” Henk Campher, VP of Corporate Marketing and Head of Impact at Hootsuite
In the office, so much knowledge transfer between leaders and teams happens outside all the formal meetings and presentations, with colleagues crossing paths, asking questions, chatting at the watercooler, etc. It’s important to allow for that spontaneity to happen remotely, as well. (Disclaimer: Henk recently joined Hootsuite and works remotely at times — so this isn’t just hypothetical!)
Random (virtual) coffee. “Can’t go wrong with Random Coffee. Create pairings once a month with those participating across the company, and they meet up for coffee/drink/chat. It gets people who would otherwise not chat to one another to connect and learn about different parts of the company.” — Tara-Lee Houkamau, Senior Business Analyst at Oranga Tamariki
This one is close to my heart. In fact, we created a little application a few years ago that allows people at any company to randomly pair up for a coffee (or beverage of choice). The power of cross-pollination — getting passionate team members together who don’t normally connect — is not to be underestimated. Incorporating Zoom, Skype or another video platform makes it easy to take this idea “virtual.”
Thanks so much to everyone who shared their brilliant ideas. Of course, this list is by no means exhaustive. I’d love to keep the dialogue going if you’ve got your own hacks for building culture across distributed teams!