Building a Team, Remotely

With engineers in Caracas, Barcelona and Cebu, our tech team becomes more and more distributed and remote. That's exciting, because it opens the door to a wider range of perspectives and ideas. There are also challenges with a remote team, and some of those challenges are well-documented: You can't turn around and talk, so you need videochat. You're not running into each other at the elevator, so you need to make a conscious decision to have a chat with someone. But a more fundamental question that I keep pondering is this: how do you make sure that these individually great engineers become a team?

You've got a team, if a bunch of individuals work with each other towards a common goal. If you're doing something ultimately mechanical, like a t-shirt factory, then processes can make sure everybody is on the same boat. With software engineering being a quite young field and with engageSPARK aiming high, we have to rely on individuals: their experiences, creativity and willingness to find the best solution together. And then processes can't get you all the way. So, how to build such a team?

Of course, we're not remotely (haha!) the first to ask these questions. Companies like Buffer, Softwaremill or Zapier embrace remote working and the openness with which they share their experiments, best practices and maybe most importantly their failures is truly amazing. You can read about anything from rules and tools for remote team management to the idea of asking random questions during online meetings. When it comes to team building, frequent videochats are recommended, asking each other personal/silly/mundane questions, and meeting in person. But, why? These activities are tools, but for what purpose?

It turns out, the glue for any high performance team is trust: In a team, you can ask for help and trust that you'll receive it, instead of being snuffed at. In a team, you can raise a problem and trust that the problem will be addressed and not you because you spoke up. In a team, you can reveal a mistake and trust that people will help you deal with it without being shamed. Ultimately, a team is a bunch of people who allow each other to be vulnerable. How do you encourage that? All it takes, is awareness, opportunity and a dash of courage.

One day, you and your cup of tea find yourself at a table with a new colleague of yours and you two start chatting, about tea, about the company, about life. But you're aware that you two will need to trust each other, you're aware that you've got an opportunity here and so you start sharing something: How you messed up last week, deleting a whole week's worth of work in a heartbeat. And you finish talking, and the story lingers there. And then human magic happens: Your colleague laughs and says: Oh, I've done worse! On the first day at my old company, I nicked the CEO's car in the parking lot! I almost peed my pants! And you laugh and say: You're right, that is worse! And, voilà, there is an inkling of trust.

Here's the catch: this situation never happens by chance in a remote team. There is no bumping into each other: In a remote team, all communication is a conscious decision, a choice. You want to build a team, you want people to trust each other? Well, it won't happen by itself, you need to create both awareness and opportunity and ask for courage.

I intend to do this very consciously and openly. Here's my plan, with each step requiring a bit more trust, but also building more, than the previous one.

  1. Create awareness, by discussing the need for trust and vulnerability.
  2. Create opportunity for people to talk with one another. We did this by setting up videocalls between each new team member and everyone else.
  3. Create opportunity to become vulnerable in front of the team. That's hard, and something I want to experiment with and learn more about.
    1. Thank Someone. On Thankful Thursday, we all express gratitude to someone. Did Joanna help you fix that nasty bug? Was Peter listening when you were angry and needed someone to listen? That bowl of snacks that Tony handed around was tasty, wasn't it? Acknowledge those kindnesses, and by doing so you also acknowledge that sometimes you need help, that sometimes you're not sufficient. Some even say, being thankful makes you happier.
    2. Acknowledge You've Been Complaining. Everyone is invited to share a time the last few days, where they've been complaining, where they expressed discontent to a person who actually couldn't do anything to fix the problem. For example, telling a sysadmin how mad you get at the current hiring process: That's complaining. Sharing your frustration over your broken computer screen with the front desk? Yep, complaining! This is a soft version of the next technique, “Admit a Mistake”, and hopefully makes everyone more aware of their complaining habits, and might even help to address the actual problem. That would be wonderful, no? But ultimately, it's about acknowledging you've done less than ideal, making you vulnerable. And yes, this is directly inspired by a complaint free world, kudos to Eli.
    3. Admit a Mistake. Ask team members to share a recent situation where they messed up. Oops, you shut down the system at peak time? Let everyone know! Chance had it you spread epoxy all over your keyboard and had to buy a new one? Too bad, but do share! Sharing something like that is already harder: you admit in front of everyone that you're not perfect, that you do make mistakes, small and big. This takes both courage and trust.
    4. Ask Forgiveness. Are team members able to apologize in front of the others for something they did? You broke someone's favorite cup? Or you accidentally replaced the marketing flyers with cat pictures five minutes before a colleague had a sales demo? Can you say “I am sorry”? The amount of courage and trust this takes is immense. But as soon as someone does it, others know it's safe to do, and the trust created by that is solid.
  4. Ask for courage. I believe, the best way to ask for courage, is to lead the way. And that means, when in doubt, I'm the first to thank someone in front of everyone, to admit a mistake, to ask for forgiveness.

With hopefully new remote members joining soon, we'll have plenty of opportunity to validate those ideas. Let's build amazing teams! We should aim for nothing less.