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5 ways to keep a distributed team cohesive

Posted by Hannah Price | 6 min read

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As distributed teams become more and more common in organizations across the world, employees, managers, and executives are experiencing a myriad of benefits.

A distributed structure can provide 24/7 support, make it easier to hire top global talent, and save dramatically on physical office space. That’s if it’s running smoothly, which doesn’t happen by accident.

Maintaining cohesiveness, particularly over the long term, is one of the greatest challenges associated with leading a distributed team.

With sometimes thousands of miles separating colleagues, and infrequent (if any) facetime, relationships and team cohesion can suffer if there aren’t effective frameworks in place.

Fortunately, this isn’t a new or unique challenge, and there are simple solutions that can make running a distributed team much easier. George Dickson of Bonusly has these ideas that you can implement at anytime.

1. Transparency and knowledge sharing

Transparency is an important element of any healthy organizational culture—and even more so for a distributed team. Without transparency, it’s easy for employees living across the country (or the world) to be left in the dark. This can have a negative impact on both the cultural and practical sides of a business.

The cultural perspective

Inadvertent knowledge hoarding can be just as harmful as deliberate knowledge hoarding, and when compounded by a general lack of communication, it’s next to impossible to tell the difference.

There may be an impromptu meeting that takes place, or a policy change that isn’t communicated effectively, leading remote employees to feel left out or undervalued. Moments like these chip away at team bonds, and erode trust in the organization.

Focusing on transparency, and purposefully involving distributed employees in decisions that might affect them, can have a significant impact.

Instead of asking “Is it critical that I share this information with every stakeholder?” ask “Is it critical that I conceal this information from any stakeholders?” You’ll find that nearly every example you put to this simple litmus test will lead toward sharing the information—and that’s a good thing. Not only will your stakeholders feel like they have a voice, their input often results in better, more effective decision making.

The practical perspective

Although keeping distributed employees in the loop is crucial from a cultural perspective, it’s just as important from a practical perspective.

Transparency and effective knowledge sharing help members of a distributed team do their job more effectively. In a recent article for InfoQ, Hugo Messer explains one of the key reasons for this:

“When a team is collocated, we all know who’s working on our projects and how we’re doing the work. We regularly reflect on the process, on the way we work, on the practices we apply. But we assume that the remote part of our team figures that out by themselves.”

Messer is describing a major, but relatively common oversight in distributed teams. Although they may be physically distant, distributed team members should always be part of the conversation.

Make sure employees have easy access to the information they need to do their best work, give them a seat at the table during meetings that might impact them, and make it easy for them to share information others may need as well.

Modern collaboration tools make accomplishing this much simpler than it was in the past.

2. Modern communication and collaboration tools

You can have all the desire in the world to promote open and effective communication, but if you don’t have the scaffolding in place to support that communication, it’s not likely to happen.

If you want to promote more open and effective communication, consider how incentives are aligned around it.

For example: If it’s awkward, time-consuming, or dull to communicate and collaborate in your organization, employees have much less incentive to invest effort in those activities. As they participate and communicate less, collaborative work suffers, and relationships deteriorate.

If you want employees to communicate regularly and effectively, adopt tools and processes that make communication as seamless, effortless, and delightful as possible.

That might sound like a tall order, but there are are some excellent tools available that can make this a reality.

3. Project management

Without participating in the spontaneous conversations that happen in a co-located office, it’s hard to keep on top of what each team member is doing, and where they’re at on their part of a project.

Working across time zones can compound this, sometimes resulting in what's referred to as the 36-hour email conundrum:

One colleague sends an email to another living on the opposite side of the world, who is fast asleep. That person wakes up, gets ready for work, and reads the email. They respond, only to reach the original sender after-hours. That person gets up the next day, reads the response, and sends their response, which reaches their colleague asleep once again...

You don’t have to follow this train too far before you realize how inefficient this feedback loop is.

Modern project management tools short-circuit that loop, making it easy to keep the entire team up to date on every aspect of a project in real-time as it comes together. This allows colleagues to work asynchronously on the same project with minimal communication delays. There’s more transparency, efficiency, and productivity.

4. Frequent, visible recognition

It’s equally important to provide a mechanism to celebrate all the great work that happens across the team with frequent, visible recognition.

Without an effective framework for recognition, it’s easy for meaningful contributions from a distributed team member to go unnoticed. The more times that happens, the less incentive they have to make those contributions.

One of the easiest ways to ensure everyone’s work gets the praise it deserves is to empower everyone on the team to recognize one another’s contributions. This practice helps to showcase the unique value each member brings to the whole team, and provides insight into the strengths individuals value most in one another.

Positive interactions like these also help foster engagement in distributed teams. They deepen the bonds of camaraderie, while providing employees with a better understanding of the impact their work has on their team, the organization, and the world around them.

5. Creativity

Finally, creativity is one of the greatest allies of a distributed team. To give you some ideas, here are a few things we’ve done to keep our own distributed team connected and engaged.

  1. Opening a wormhole
    A wormhole is a persistent video link between offices. In a co-located office, there are a lot of spontaneous conversations that pop up between coworkers. A wormhole can help bridge the distance, and make those impromptu conversations a more regular thing, even across great distances.

  2. Online hangouts or happy hours
    You may not be able to share stories and communicate casually in the same room, but you can still do it online. Video conferencing is normally all business, but taking some time to use it for fun can help it double as an effective relationship strengthening tool.

  3. Coworking allowances
    Although a distributed work environment can function without it, facetime is a powerful relationship building tool. If it’s possible, meet up in person now and then. The famously distributed Automattic team gathers for all-hands meetups in different parts of the world at least once each year.

    To support our team members’ interest in spending time with one another, we offer subsidized travel for employees heading to a city where another coworker lives, so long as they take some time to meet up.

In conclusion

There are many advantages to having a distributed team. With the right tools and strategies in place, you and your team can experience the best of them, while taking the challenges in stride.

Author bio

George Dickson manages content and community at Bonusly. He's dedicated to strengthening organizational cultures through thoughtful leadership and frequent recognition.

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