Having worked on several globally distributed teams, I feel your pain. I’m no guru on this subject but I shall share what I’ve come to see as essential based on the many times I’ve gotten this wrong.
- Gotta have one meeting a day (e.g. Standup) with EVERYONE.
- Set clear short-term goals (Spring Goal, Feature Goal, etc.).
- Have a shared knowledge repository.
- Create clear synchronous AND asynchronous communication channels.
- Have regular (at least once a month) 1-on-1s with each member of the team.
- Create ways to build team relationships.
- Use Video not just text or voice.
- Understand cultural differences.
Okay, now for the dissertation:
There are two sides to managing any team: The Task and The Personal. An effective team culture needs to address both well.
(I’m going to pause here to say that there are nuances to this and one could argue it’s really a multi-sided polyhedron not a coin, but I’m trying to keep it simple, not play D&D…so I’m sticking with my two basic categories.)
Distributed teams experience the added wrinkle of not being able to gather everyone together easily in the same meat-space. Scattering your team around the globe increases those difficulties with little things like time-zones and cultural differences.
Daily All-Hands Meeting: This is imperative. It can be inconvenient for some, but it’s necessary. Call this a Standup, Daily Scrum, All-Hands, whatever. The point is, you NEED one meeting (preferably on video with all faces seen), with everyone on the team attending.
When I ran a team with resources in the U.S., Ukraine, India, and Australia, we picked a time that was pretty much horrible for everyone. We met at 05:00 Central US (where I lived) which turned out to be 06:00 for U.S. East Coast people, 13:00 in Ukraine, 16:30 in India, and 22:00 for the folks in Sydney Australia. This meant we all adjusted our work days accordingly. My work day began at 04:30 for me so I could get 30 min to pull my thoughts together before Standup. For those in Australia, Standup ended their work day. As a manager, sometimes I had to change my schedule to match one of my reports around the world. I thus had to make sure I communicated with everyone what my schedule would be like during that time.
Set clear short-term goals: One of the keys to making sure everyone is on the same page and moving in the same direction it to make sure everyone knows where the team is headed and what it takes to get there and when they expect to reach their destination. Scrum comes prepackaged with the Scrum Goal so if you’re already using that you have a ready made way to remind everyone what the team is focused on this Sprint. If not, start setting goals and arranging work priorities around those goals.
Have a shared Knowledge repository: The company I’m with now uses Confluence. A previous company just used Google Docs. Whatever it is, have a centralized place where you team can share documentation, how-tos, etc. I’ve also found creating a wiki of some kind to be a valuable asset.
Synchronous & Asynchronous communication channels: I love that your teams has started making videos of features in development, and posting status updates in Slack. Great use of asynchronous tools. Tools like Slack (and I have to admit, Teams ) provide a great avenue for both types of communication. My previous global team also had a daily status update channel where everyone posted their progress/roadblocks so we didn’t have to wait till the next Standup before addressing issues. The knowledge repository I mentioned above can be folded into this as well.
Regular 1-on-1 meetings: Good managers care about their people holistically. The 1-on-1 is not just about the job, the tasks, and business. Use the time to get to know your reports. Frequently spikes and dips in performance are connected more to issues outside of work. That interpersonal stuff doesn’t come naturally for me so I found a mentor to teach me how to do it better.
Create ways to build team relationships: Okay, in general, I HATE “team-building activities,” at least they way they were implemented when I started out (last century…yea, I’m old). Think small. My current team has Standups scheduled at 09:15, however the meeting space opens at 09:00. That first fifteen minutes is general chat. Those who wish jump on and we just chat about whatever. At 09:15 we pull it together and get down to The Tasks.
We also do “Daily Posts.”
Monday Mirth: Share a funny (cartoon, funny story, etc.)
Tuesday Trivia: I have some kind of conversational prompt and ask people to share a story. Last week’s was “Got a story to share about going to the top of something very high?” I learned that a couple of my teammates also share my aversion to high places.
Wonderful, Weird, Wacky, What the Heck Wednesday: Share something you saw, heard, read, etc. this week that made you go “What the heck?!” This one started out as just sharing WTF stories, but then COVID hit and every day was WTF…so we decided to broaden our scope to share wonderful things, things which lifted us up.
Throwback Thursday: Share something that happened this week in the past. We get lots of family pictures (birthdays, etc.).
Friday Funnies: Like Monday Mirth, share a funny. Bonus points if they’re NOT just about the upcoming weekend.
Encourage “water cooler conversations.” Since we’re remote, we don’t bump into each other at the water cooler or in the break room and strike up a chat. So we need to be intentional about these. I almost always begin any chat by asking how the other person is doing and taking a few minutes to talk about non-work related things. Then we segue into whatever topic we needed to actually discuss. But for this to work, managers have to lead by example.
Use video, not just text or voice: Not everyone loves this. I get it. And, that’s just too bad. As someone who started working remote in 2005, I will definitively say that face-to-face communication is CRITICAL! And I’m an introvert!!
Being able to see someone’s face adds so much to the conversation. I have a hard enough time reading social cues at the best of times. It’s impossible to read tone in text only. It’s difficult to gauge it with voice only. When we see facial expression and body posture we begin to have a chance to understand the other.
When we interview for our team, we are up front that video communication is expected. It is the default. So all those early morning Standups at O-dark-hundred…yup, I was on camera, even if my hair was a mess. Sometimes there’s a good reason to switch the camera off. The other week a meeting was schedule over my lunch time. I still needed to eat. I went camera dark until I was done (and made sure my mic was off if I wasn’t speaking), then turned my camera back on.
Understand cultural differences: My first time working in a multi-ethnic team, I was super frustrated that many of my teammates just couldn’t seem to show up for meetings on time, or start a meeting on time. I was getting really bent out of shape about it. Then someone helped me understand that my cultural worldview valued Time itself as a commodity. Theirs placed people and relationships above time. So if they bumped into someone they hadn’t seen in a while, it would have been a betrayal of their worldview if they failed to stop and caught up with them, and thus showing up late for our meeting. My journey toward understanding multi-cultural relational dynamics started with first understanding the water in which I swam, or the cultural assumptions which had been programmed into me. There’s a neat article by Louise Rasmussen (Cross-Cultural Competence: Engage People from any Culture - Global Cognition) that list some basic ways to start developing cross-cultural competence.
This was sort of “off the cuff” and I’m sure there are holes you could fly an Airbus 380 through. I hope there was something in this rambling missive which benefits you.
Feel free to DM me or hit me up on Slack to chat about any of this.
And if anyone is actually still reading this long-winded exposition, you really need to find a hobby.