long-distance teams

When we think about Long-Distance Teams, we often take a very narrow view. We spend a lot of time focusing on those people who directly report to us and work with each other. We refer to those people as our “nuclear” team.  Maybe we need to think bigger.

Taking a cue from families

The term stems from the same place as the “nuclear family.” Traditionally, that means people living together in a household: parents, children, possibly grandparents are a single unit. They form the nucleus of the family with tighter bonds than with anyone, anywhere else. As the family expands to include aunts, uncles, cousins and in-laws, the relationships with those on the outer rings are often less tight than with those in the middle. 

The same thing happens with work teams. We usually think of our team as a manager and those who report directly to him or her. We spend most of our time and energy forging and maintaining good communication and social bonds with those folks.

In fact, in the years since the COVID Diaspora that sent so many people to work remotely, the strength of the nuclear team is often cited as something of a success story. We hear “our immediate team is doing great. We’ve been able to maintain the bonds we had when everyone worked together and haven’t missed a step.” Even if it’s true (and we’ll get to that in a minute) that statement bears some examination.

How have long-distance teams impacted teamwork?

First, it’s widely reported that many leaders were pleasantly surprised by how well nuclear teams hung together. The communication and social bonds withstood and overcame the challenges of distance pretty well. There may have been some bumps along the way, and certain individuals struggled more than others, but we learned distance doesn’t have to be a terminally corrosive factor in how teams bond and get work done.

Here’s an important question: that may be true with those who worked together in the “before times,” but does your team look like it did three years ago? Just as families adopt people or people marry in and have to be absorbed into the nucleus, it’s a pretty good chance new people have joined your team in the last three years.

Many leaders have direct reports they haven’t met in person, or certainly don’t know as well as they do the existing teammates. Team members have tight bonds with those they’ve shared work with for years, but how well are they accepting and adopting the newcomers?

How are we doing welcoming new members to “the family”?

And just like nuclear families, the farther out on the family tree’s branches you go, the more tenuous the connections. One of the pushes for returning to the office is the (not inconsiderable) fear that while nuclear teams have remained tight and productive, there are fewer connection to the “cousins” in other departments or locations.

As leaders, it’s important that we maintain solid, productive and dynamic nuclear teams. But to be really successful inside our organizations, we need to forge relationships elsewhere in the organization.  That’s why so many people are eager to return to the office—it’s a way of creating family reunions.

Of course, we know not all reunions are pleasant, and often time and distance make them impossible.

How can you and your team ramp up the time it takes for new hires to feel like part of the family? How are you helping forge connections to the rest of your organization while keeping the nuclear team strong?

Strong nuclear teams, like nuclear families, are the emotional and functional bedrock of our work society, but the more we can forget relationships with others outside that core, the more effective and productive we’ll be.


Wayne Turmel--The Remote Leadership Institute

Wayne Turmel
Co-Founder and Product Line Manager

Wayne Turmel is the co-founder and Product Line Manager for the Remote Leadership Institute. For twenty years he’s been obsessed with helping managers communicate more effectively with their teams, bosses and customers. Wayne is the author of several books that demystify communicating through technology including Meet Like You Mean It – a Leader’s Guide to Painless & Productive Virtual Meetings, 10 Steps to Successful Virtual Presentations and 6 Weeks to a Great Webinar. His work appears frequently in Management-Issues.com.

Wayne, along with Kevin Eikenberry, has co-authored the definitive book on leading remotely, The Long-Distance Leader: Rules for Remarkable Remote Leadership. Wayne and Kevin’s follow-up book, The Long-Distance Teammateoffers a roadmap for success not just for leaders, but for everyone making the transition to working remotely.

The latest book from Wayne and Kevin shows leaders how to design a team culture that has a one-team mindset and gets great results under hybrid-work conditions. You can order The Long-Distance Team: Designing Your Team for Everyone’s Success now.

Share your thoughts

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked

{"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}