Since the pandemic, the rate of remote working teams has shot up, despite efforts from CEOs to get people to return to an in-office environment.
It’s very rare that I meet a team who is working from the office full-time these days. Most teams have settled on either some form of hybrid working, or remaining fully remote, usually because team members are too distributed to commute to a common office.
In both hybrid and fully remote teams, some leaders struggle to learn more about the people they are working with, but there are some practical ways you can build stronger remote relationships.
Relationship building is a value-add
Many leaders, particularly technical leaders, feel like time spent on building relationships is a “waste.” From an extreme/absolutist perspective that might be the case, as solely investing in relationships without any results does not add value. However, effective leaders are great multipliers and a strong relationship with team members is key to understanding the best ways to act as a multiplier per person. Ultimately, this means you should start seeing relationship building as a value-added activity.
Explicitly make time to build relationships
In a fully in-person office environment, teams and leaders have enough serendipitous opportunities to connect with one another. This might be hallway conversations when walking to or from a meeting room, a tea/coffee break conversation in a kitchen, or spending time with each other over lunch.
In a hybrid or fully remote environment, there are fewer chances to build and grow relationships, so you need to be more deliberate about them.
There are many different approaches to doing this including:
- Setting up informal chats – Apps like Donut connect people across the organization with the goal of building bridges across teams and individuals. You don’t necessarily have to use an app to set them up, but it can save some administrative time.
- Using more ad-hoc 1:1s – If you’re a manager, set up some more casual 1:1s focused just on getting to know each other. In a remote environment, consider doing a walking 1:1, where both parties attend an audio call and go for a walk outside, preferably somewhere with nature and less background noise. Alternatively, consider organizing a synced tea/coffee break with some pre-delivered snacks.
- More frequent team building activities – In the absence of serendipitous time together, leaders should think about introducing more team building time. There are many ideas out there for remote team building, but your team might not ask for them. Explicitly organize these activities and emphasize the importance of this work time.
- Encouraging joint work – Working together with a common goal is a great way to build relationships. Consider doing remote pair programming sessions, pair design sessions, or setting up a roster where people can swap knowledge about task-relevant information to encourage closer touch points that benefit the entire team. Here, you are not only building stronger relationships but also ensuring there is more collective ownership.
Prioritize relationship building when meeting in person
I’m sure you’ve had the experience of finally meeting someone in person after working with them remotely and sensing something is different about the relationship. You’ve probably heard comments like, “You’re taller than I imagined,” or “What a really fun person!” or “Remember that evening after the offsite?” Even teams who are fully remote often experience a difference if they come together for a once-a-year offsite day. I’ve heard some leaders describe relationships as “richer” or “fuller” when they meet someone in person, so if your team has a chance to meet, make sure they can come together at least once a year – ideally more frequently if your organization can support this.
With the offsite, prioritize time together and not just work activities. Ensure the schedule has enough slack for people to simply spend time together in a less structured atmosphere. Organizing offsites in a major tourist city can be tempting because they often have great travel connections, but there’s always the risk of an individual disappearing to do sightseeing by themselves which defeats the relationship-building purpose.
If you’re working in a hybrid team, avoid the situation where team members come into the office, only to put on their headphones or, or spend the entire time in remote meetings. Perhaps schedule a pre-set team day with group activities programmed. One way to work together is to have a design jam where people collaborate on creating a feature. Another way is to have a team code review or ensemble coding session where everyone works on the same problem. Alternatively consider scheduling some of the team rituals for in-person time, like a weekly planning or retrospective meeting, where everyone has a vested interest to share information with all team members.
Strong relationships are key to high-performing teams
The basis of high-performing teams is strong trust between its team members. You can only build trust with strong relationships and in a hybrid or fully remote environment, there’s less serendipitous opportunity for this.
As a leader, recognize the value in investing in relationships among team members, deliberately make more time to create and deepen relationships, and maximize the relationship-building opportunity when you have face-to-face time as a team.