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Building team camaraderie when remote working

“mutual trust and friendship among people who spend a lot of time together.”

When you work across time zones with someone for 8 hours a day, building a platform of trust and friendship is essential.

I’ve been on a remote-first team for close to 3 years. Our team looks after the Identity and Access Management of the entire organisation which is about 8000 people. We’re not only remote but also distributed across 5 time zones, so working from home (WFH) isn’t a new thing for us. In this article, I’d like to share a few tips that can help you build camaraderie within your own remote team. 

1. Build the relationship

When you work with someone who you don’t get a lot of face time with, it’s important to hit it off on the right note and make every effort to build that relationship. A strong bond, not just on the professional front but beyond work, helps increase productivity and augurs well for both the individual and the team. 
As any excelling sports team will tell you, it’s important for all the members of the team to connect with each other. The reason? You feel good working with a bunch of people that you’ve grown to know, understand and trust. 

Create a chit-chat channel

In these times of isolation during COVID-19, one of the things people working from home miss the most is casual office chit chat. Many teams resort to a quick and virtual watercooler conversation over video conferencing to keep the casual conversations flowing.

On our team, given the different time zones, it’s impossible to get everyone on a call, unless more than one person offers to join the call at an unearthly-hour-o-clock. We generally connect using a common Hangouts Chat Team room, where everyone writes about what they’ve been up to. 

We set up a ‘Team Cafe’ chat room where anyone can post non-work related stuff. All topics are fair game - from how we spent time with family over the weekend to what's the weather like outside our window,  and, from vacation pics to our latest must-watch on Netflix. We’ve made it a habit to constantly post to that channel. 

Everyone on the team knows the others’ family members by name. During a stand up call, we take a minute to say hi to the kid who just popped up on one of the screens or check on our Oz teammate’s stock of toilet paper or another colleague’s kid’s fever or on what’s cooking for dinner.

Glimpses of our cafe chat room
Glimpses of our cafe chat room

Empathise with and embrace the differences

If your team is spread across different continents, not only are your days and nights different but so are your cultural and social ways of living. We try to bridge that gap by sharing interesting facts about our respective cultures - how we celebrate festivals or what’s news in our cities and towns. We talk about wedding wear and rituals that are part of a celebration. We discuss school systems and the kind of privileges we enjoy in our society. There always seems to be a lot to share and learn from one another.

These small exchanges help us better understand the other person, and go beyond our otherwise professional appearances. An awareness of each person’s personal situations and constraints helps us be accommodative of each other while we make the best of the time spent as a team.

While the same team is unlikely to last forever, the relationships that you build with these interactions long outlive your project. I’d rather know someone for the kind of person they are at work and beyond, than only associate work-related memories with that person. 

2. Build the trust

Trust is a two-way street. The quality of your remote working experience is centered on that trust. I remember a time when I’d goofed something up big time, while working late into the night. My teammates immediately stepped in and took ownership of fixing it while asking me to go to bed in peace. There was no blame game, no pointing fingers - it was a beautiful show of team spirit, and by the time I woke up the next morning, the issue was history. You become open to receiving feedback from your teammates, when you are convinced that they have your best interests at heart. At the end of your working day, you pass the baton to the next time zone’s team member, rest assured that they will take it from there. That trust is what makes it a great team.

The power of acknowledgement

Respect and acknowledge each other’s work. We never miss an opportunity to praise our teammates on a bigger channel and give them their due. Remember, a well-structured compliment is also great feedback. Likewise, when a teammate is unavailable or tending to a sick child, we acknowledge the difficulty of that situation and offer to pick up some of their tasks and keep the team wheel running just as smoothly.

3. Make face to face interaction shine!

While there is emphasis on building trustworthy remote-working relationships, don’t underestimate the value of being face to face. It does wonders for strengthening team relationships.

When a remote-first team like ours meets a few times a year, apart from all the work-related conversations, there’s also real-world team bonding time. This could be anything from a game of bowling to an adventurous rafting experience. 

Bonding over some good food
Bonding over some good food

For instance, it’s no mean challenge to accommodate everyone’s food preferences and spice tolerance and pick the right restaurant for dinner.

Building a strong sense of camaraderie on remote teams isn’t that different from building a great sports team. The ingredients are the same - genuine relationships, trust, feedback, banter and care. I hope that some of the team practices I’ve shared with you help you consider how to build your own, high performing remote team. 

Disclaimer: The statements and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Thoughtworks.

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