remote team volunteering
The Kevin Eikenberry Group team volunteering together.

by Chuck Chapman, Content Strategy Coordinator

Think of all the people who have “remote” roles in our lives. It doesn’t matter if they’re celebrities who deliver us entertainment through our screens, people we’ve “met” via social media, or customer service reps we only talk to over the phone. These are people we’ve never locked eyes with or spoken to face to face. It’s very easy to forget they’re actually live, breathing human beings. When we forget that, we tend to deny them some of the common courtesies we usually accord to people we physically interact with.

This is a challenge facing every leader of remote teams. For many remote teams, communication only takes place via telephone, email or texts. For still too many more, that conversation is purely transactional, only focusing on business. When that impersonal dynamic takes hold (and it’s easy for that to happen) we forget that the person on the other end has some real human needs.

Humans are relational beings

At the core of who we are is our desire to relate to one another. That happens fairly organically in most traditional office settings. Whether it’s chatting about last night’s game by the water cooler, shooting the breeze by the coffee maker, or sharing a ride to work, team members (even those stuck in cold, impersonal “cube farms”) naturally form relationships. And it’s these interpersonal relationships that are the glue that holds the team together as they collaborate on projects.

With remote teams, however, these organic opportunities to connect with each other are missing. What’s more, the remote communication modes encourage us to “get to business” and avoid what can be very valuable time to “small talk.” The consequence is a lack of “stickiness” that can result in a lack of cooperation among team members, lesser quality work, and ultimately, lower satisfaction and higher job turnover rates.

That’s why remote leaders must be intentional in their efforts to encourage relationships among their team members. I’m fortunate enough to work with one of the best at doing that, Kevin Eikenberry. Kevin understands the value of relationships among co-workers and goes out of his way to provide and facilitate those bonding opportunities.

What does he do? It’s nothing extravagant, just intentional and principled leadership.

Invest in face to face time.

Yes, you’re a remote team, but that doesn’t preclude you from ever getting together face to face. I’m lucky to be in KEG’s “home office” of Indianapolis, so I can drive over to our Remarkable House headquarters any time and interact with many of my teammates and Kevin. But at least twice a year, Kevin invests in bringing the team members who live outside of Indianapolis here so we can all meet in person.

Could we have those meetings remotely? Sure. We do that in sub-groups daily and the whole team meets virtually every month. They’re good meetings and much gets accomplished. But there’s something about actually sitting next to or across the table from a colleague. Those times together not only involve a lot of work together, but a lot of smiles, laughs, and valuable information that wouldn’t be able to be shared in an email, text or even a conference call.

What’s more, Kevin also invests in social time together. Whether it’s an evening out at dinner, a team trip to the bowling alley for a few games, or a volunteer effort together, these hours spent together create enough “glue” to last us the rest of the year. And when and if conflicts arise, that relational groundwork has been laid that allows teammates to work through it.

This is money out-of-pocket that a CEO like Kevin could certainly save, but what would be the costs of not doing it?

It starts with on-boarding.

I knew right from the start Kevin Eikenberry was serious about relationships. My first task as a new employee was to schedule phone calls to every team member I didn’t meet during the interview process. And the instructions were very clear: don’t make this call all about business. Get to know them. These calls were brief, but very enjoyable as I got to know about my colleagues’ families, hobbies and interests, and a host of other more personal information that probably wouldn’t have come to light otherwise.

The team already knew my name, had a picture of me, and knew my basic professional background. These 15 to 30-minute conversations put a person to the name, though. I can’t overstate the value of that as we’ve worked together.

Create a “water-cooler” channel.

Like all remote teams, we communicate via phone, through emails, and instant messaging. We use Slack for our IM software, and Kevin has created a special “water-cooler” channel for team members to use for talking about their kid’s braces coming off, talking trash about this weekend’s upcoming football game, posting funny GIFs, and a host of other stuff that allows team members to interact purely as people. No “business” allowed.

Some remote leaders might think this curtails productivity. Far from it. Because most of our work is collaborative, having that human connection encourages productivity and greater team work. Knowing that person I’m working with on a human level keeps me from just putting my head down and staying in my “silo.”

Keep your shared goals and purpose front and center.

“Siloing” is one of the biggest challenges facing any remote worker. As I mentioned at the outset, it’s very easy to feel isolated from those we don’t have personal contact with. It’s common for remote workers to just focus on completing the tasks and forget about the people involved. That results in a lot more confusion and rework.

One sure way to combat that is to keep team members aligned with their shared goals and purpose. Kevin does that subtly, but quite intentionally during out monthly team meetings. As we discuss each business unit, Kevin always opens with a reminder about that unit’s mission and goals. Those are central to everything we talk about during that meeting.

It’s been said about teams that “the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.” The challenge for any leader is bring the parts together into a unit that functions as one. Doing that remotely, with the parts scattered all over the world, can be even more challenging. It won’t happen on accident, and you can create a stronger team by intentionally focusing on building relationships.

If you want to learn more about building a successful remote team, Kevin and Wayne Turmel’s book, The Long-Distance Leader: Rules for Remarkable Remote Leadership is your guide. There you’ll learn what Kevin and Wayne have learned from leading their own remote teams and working with other leaders around the world.

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