A team is not just a group of people working on a project, it’s more. In a team, we feel connected, there is a ’we’, a bond, a feeling of belonging.
This is equally true for co-located and virtual teams. In a co-located team you might get lucky and the team comes together beautifully (– let’s not go into how likely that is at this moment –) in a virtual team, however, it is particularly important to work towards this because the frequently-quoted ‘water-cooler moments’ don’t exist.
For leaders of virtual teams, it is particularly important to be intentional in creating team cohesion and a feeling of connection because it significantly influences employee satisfaction and performance.
At Intao, we have been a virtual team from the start. We created a set of routines that make sure, we are aligned and focused, communication is transparent AND we feel connected to each other.
It’s safe to say, it paid off. Here is a message taken from one of our slack channels:
Our team starts every workday together with a daily morning check-in. Our check-in is designed to:
We meet every workday at the same time. For us it’s 9:30 a.m. For a team of 8 you will need 15-20 minutes.
One person volunteers to start. In our team, it’s two people in particular who like to go first so we usually stick to them starting us off.
They speak about what they’ve accomplished the day before and what they are intending to tackle today. It’s not just about listing tasks, it’s also about speaking about feeling stuck or celebrating something we are proud of. It’s an opportunity to ask for support or share something personal.
When the first person is finished, they name the next person to speak.
The last person is also in charge of what we call ‘the motivation’.
What we call ‘the motivation’ is not really about motivating anyone. (If that’s even possible, is a whole other conversation.) Instead, it’s about creating a small spark for each individual beyond the actual project tasks.
We use reflexion questions, quotes, little stories. We even used to have a team member who led us through short meditations.
This, for example, was posted in our #selfawareness Slack channel as an answer to the question „What advice would you give your 14-year-old self today?“
Now, you think that has nothing to do with a connection within a team? On the contrary – this is about getting to know each other, even being vulnerable.
We do have a few rules we like to follow.
This check-in is a valuable opportunity to – well – lead.
As a virtual leader particularly, you have to be intentional about all the different levels of teamwork. The morning check-in is good for alignment and connection, for transparent communication and clarity around goals and progress. It’s a magic wand.
In a virtual team, moments of direct communication are rare. So you can use the opportunity, when it’s your turn, strategically. You might want to create a bit of transparency about what’s going on in terms of strategy, you might share a personal story regarding a topic you would like to team to talk about.
Don’t be scared to be ‚human‘. Being a team is not just about getting work done but about showing up as a bunch of humans who are excited to work on a common goal together.
The morning check-in allows you to make sure everyone is okay – on a professional level and as a human being.
From the very beginning, we knew we wanted to do things differently. Our goal was – and is – to create a work environment that allows everyone in our company to become the best version of themselves. This is what creates success and makes our vision come to life.
Remote work allows us to do exactly that.
How is that, you ask?
Let me share our experience with building Intao as a remote company.
Let’s take a quick look at what it means to be a remote company.
Naturally, it means everyone can work wherever they want. Our team is distributed around the globe. We have people working in Germany and Hungary. One of us is spending the cold and grey winter months in Thailand. One of our freelancers went to explore the Peruvian jungle. And one of us is travelling Europe in a van in the summertime. There are no limits.
That’s what’s on the surface. On a deeper level, it means, the connection we have as a team cannot derive from mere geographical proximity. And therein lies the biggest challenge.
There are no run-ins at the coffee machine. Feeling connected – something that supposedly just happens in a co-located company – is something we have to plan for.
As an example, we begin every single morning together in our check-in via Google Hangout. And at the end of that, there is always a short motivation, a share, a personal note or an inspiration that reminds us that we are on a journey together as people, not just as our job titles. Our check-in creates a sense of connection.
We meet three times per year for at least four days to connect and re-focus. We estimated that last year we spent about 20 days on our team, our culture and our productivity. That’s about 10% of the entire year. Too much? Too little? I don’t know. I do know that I am more connected to this remote team than I have ever been to any other I have ever worked in.
Taking care of the feeling of the team is just one aspect – there are others we explicitly plan for. Routines, structures, guidelines, processes, documentation, and tools. They are absolutely crucial.
Our first year was spent finding rhythm. There is research that shows, remote companies grow slower than co-located ones, especially at the beginning. I believe that. Especially when you set it up for the first time. There were a lot of insecurities and growing pains.
You cannot have a thriving remote company if you neglect organisation, documentation and structure.
Remote work forces you to be committed to documentation. As this is not the most appealing thing to do, it’s extremely valuable to have that extra push, because there is just no other way to do it.
Lucky, if you have someone on your team who is a stickler for it anyways. They are immensely valuable.
Moreover, it is important to focus on being organised and have a keen eye on your structures – especially when you start growing. Some things might just work without thinking about it when you are only three or four people. But what about ten? What about twenty? That just won’t do anymore.
As we started growing we realised we have to be aware of what kind of structures we need. A different frequency in our meetings? A new Slack channel? A new tool to organise our content management? A new Asana board?
We try to be constantly aware of how well we are working together as a company and team and what we can improve about it. And remote work pushes us to never neglect that.
For us as leaders, being a remote company works a little bit like having a leadership mirror so to speak. How well the team works is a direct reflection of how you show up as a leader.
In an office space, you are there physically. That can, of course, be an opportunity, but it can also cover up quite well, how you show up on another level. And that’s the kind of showing up, that matters. Carrying the vision of the company, connecting to your employees, being clear on where to go – all of that happens within. If you don’t do that when leading a remote company, you notice it very, very fast because people feel disconnected. And that is the important part. Because naturally, that can happen to the best of us. The faster you notice it, the faster you can do something about it. So, in that sense, remote work accelerates that process.
The same goes for the whole team. How well are you communicating? Do you trust each other? Do you help each other out? Are you going in the same direction?
Trust and communication are what makes you strong as a team and as a company. Some might argue being physically close makes it easier to build trust. That might be the case. But it can also conceal slight tensions or issues in communication. If you work remotely, it absolutely has to work. And the sooner you notice something is wrong, the sooner you can fix it.
I believe radical transparency is needed in order to make sure that the small things, that aren’t working well, never have the chance to grow so big as to derail what you are trying to do.
Additionally, every one of us gains so much on an individual level. We can work wherever we want and shape our own work environment. We probably don’t have to tell you why we love that, just have a look at this.
Working as a remote company also helps us grow on a personal level. You have to be much more aware of how you show up and what kind of attitude you bring to the team because it matters even more. You have to constantly evaluate how you communicate because misunderstandings or losing touch happens will influence productivity immediately.
As we constantly give each other feedback and are super open about how we feel the team is doing, we can see where we as individuals have to grow and develop new skills.
A remote team requires energy and ownership. Every single person on our team is fully there. There are no slackers.
But it took a year and a few people had to leave before we found the core team we are currently working in. Not because of the skills but because of the personal maturity it needs to work remotely. Remote work asks everyone to be able to communicate openly and constructively and to structure and organise your day independently. There is no boss who checks if you spend your time on facebook.
Now, we are a small startup with three very dedicated founders who give everything to build what they dream of. If the leaders of the team, the department and the company are not in it, remote work will probably result in less productivity.
The essence boils down to this: Being a remote company has unveiled time and time again if the way we work is successful and enabled us to become better and better.