How to build a strong remote team

11 February 2021

How to build a strong remote team

by Gabriela Arriaga

A team is not a group of people who work together on the same task. Instead, a team is a group of people who trust each other. Yes, individual knowledge and experience are important, but a collaborative attitude and a strong set of soft skills are key features of any high-performance team, whether it’s remote or in person.

When people move into positions of greater leadership, you can see that skills related to negotiation, communication, and collaboration become increasingly important on top of consolidated technical skills. When thinking of your own career path, considering a balance between hard and soft skills can help you achieve success.

As even Steve Jobs, one of the most iconic individuals in business, once said: “Great things in business are never done by one person. They’re done by a team of people.” When we talk about team strengths, it’s not just about adding together all the hard and soft individual skills each individual possesses. It’s about the ability to sync them all up for a common good, which in turn makes team far greater than the sum of its parts. 

That being said, no matter how many experts you have on a team, what will really make a difference is everyone’s ability to trust and respect each other’s skills. It strengthens the team’s performance, increases the quality of its work, motivates growth and fosters a healthy environment of collaboration.

The challenge of attaining and sustaining such skills on a team is not only the responsibility of team members. Here, coaches, leaders, and coordinators play pivotal roles. It’s not just about saying “trust, respect and communication are important,” but fusing these qualities into part of a team’s culture and adjusting the strategy into each team’s unique characteristics and progress. 

And it can’t just be only a top-down approach either. Truly adopting these characteristics means that every single team member should be encouraged and feel comfortable giving feedback and recommending improvements.

Aggressive deadlines and complex commitments often keep the team focused on the purely technical. They put the soft skills on the backburner or pass them off to those who have to negotiate with those outside the core team. But this is not sustainable in the long-term because although trust, respect and collaboration are subtle, they permeate the entire value of any team. If those pieces deteriorate, they are difficult to restore. If no one intervenes because they are all too busy, the quality of the team’s deliverables and its cordiality are put at risk. 

The closeness of team members in the agile work format, which groups the teams together in the same area, strengthens collaboration and bonds while also promoting and streamlining communication channels. Daily coexistence allows us to establish strong connections with our colleagues, not only through face-to-face meetings, but also through moments of informal coexistence. 

Non-verbal communication, although commonly ignored, is essential when reacting to an unforeseen event and for the full understanding of any communication. Let’s face it, in many circumstances face-to-face communication, with its body language, telling silences and facial expressions, can be much more effective than emails or calls.

So how can trust survive on a remote team?

Let’s be clear, communication is a skill to be reinforced – it is not a specialized tool. 

Fostering good communication is not about using a trendy new tool or platform, but having a collaborative team that can effectively communicate. Overloading a team with work and taking up too many hours of their day can be very counterproductive. A team that feels comfortable expressing their limits and is able to coordinate and negotiate realistic dates for quality solutions is a sign and encourager of a healthy and motivated team. 

At the same time, it is not about being on an infinite conference call with our colleagues to check up on any progress or issue they have, but trusting that they can get things done properly and on time. And if they can’t, it’s about trusting their ability to share their concerns and give timely feedback. It’s a fine balance to strike between team and individual work. 

The challenge of remote teams is to cultivate these communication skills within the team, while also ensuring each person is focused on goals, proactive in teamwork, motivated in continuous improvement and emotionally supported. 

For a coach to help create this environment, there needs to be continuous effort to adjust strategies according to team needs and reactions. Yet one thing that is universally important is to uphold and offer a trustworthy communication channel between all of the different team members. The team needs a proactive attitude in terms of moving forward with any changes, providing feedback and sharing ideas that can improve the team’s strength and development. 

Each team reacts differently to the challenge of being remote, so there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Yet, every team must establish a suitable and flexible agreement to facilitate healthy and professional practices for valuable remote coexistence. After that, each team member should consider compliance with this agreement as a statement of respect to the others in the team. 

Remember, it is not about the tool we use or the time we supposed to be “at work.” Rather, it’s about the efficiency and effectiveness with which we use the time and tools we have. For example, it’s not only about being on-time for meetings, but paying attention to speakers, especially if the topic is directly relevant. It’s not only about being punctual online, but being on the lookout for what’s needed and being prepared in case something is requested. 

Scheduling casual calls with team members is something I’ve found to be very helpful for remote teamwork. The best is for the calls to be prepared, but also as spontaneous and informal as possible. You don’t want it to be all about work, but use it to get to know the person you’re talking to and have them learn about you. Icebreaker activities can also help when looking to strengthen a team’s confidence. It’s not necessarily about becoming someone’s friend, but about establishing a comfortable work relationship.

When we see peoples’ reactions to events that aren’t directly related to work, it helps us to discover their personalities and anticipate how they could react to other circumstances. It’s all part of a long-term strategy that may not immediately seem as efficient as placing precise orders in bullet point email, but creating these relationships and communication skills creates a solid foundation for everything that you do.

Conference calls with video on, and if possible, face-to-face team workshops, at least once or twice per year can also exponentially increase the sense of belonging and recognition in a team. Although everyone may be separated by hundreds of miles, these activities can reinforce everyone’s commitment to both the projects and each other. 

It’s important to remember that a remote team is just like any other team – each person has the exact same ups and downs. But remote work comes with the added challenge that non-verbal reactions cannot be seen so messages can be more easily misinterpreted.

It may seem almost counterintuitive with everyone at a distance, but in remote work, respect, communication and trust are absolutely fundamental and must be actively and consistently fostered to maximize team success. 

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