The Unlikely Secret To Fostering Great Remote Team Relationships: Face Time
Writing this, I’m flying back from San Francisco where I’ve just spent a few days with my team at an offsite. One of the biggest mistakes people make with remote work is not understanding that face time is still necessary and important for a team to form close bonds that foster great collaboration.
I can say with pride that I have a strong relationship with everyone on my team. I know their stories, struggles and aspirations both on a personal level as well as a professional level. I’m invested in their lives, careers, and feel extremely close with them all. Over the years, we’ve formed bonds that feel a lot more like friendship or family rather than coworkers who almost never physically see each other.
Yet how is this possible when my closest teammate lives thousands of miles away, in a different timezone?
While driving on the 101 to Mountainview, a few coworkers and I discussed this amazing phenomenon: feeling closer to each other than people who work in an office. A new team member who works onsite in an office discussed her theory for why she felt closer to our remote team than her in office team on a relational basis.
“It’s like when you live in a city but you never make time to see the landmarks a tourist would prioritize seeing. You take for granted they will always be there so you don’t make an effort to go. That’s how I feel about this team: because we have limited time together, I don’t take that time for granted and invest in getting to know everyone. In the office people don’t make as much of an effort because they see the same people every day.”
After 10 years of remote work and team management, I can say with certainty that is 100% true.
Research shows that the best teams function when they are invested in projects, have strong relational foundations with teammates, and can bring their whole selves to work. With remote teams, it might not be as obvious that the same outcomes can be achieved when teammates are distributed across timezones and geos. We’ve found it’s absolutely not necessary to be colocated 100% of the time to have a team that gels well together. The trick is to have regular opportunities for face time that include fun and work. My own theory follows that of keeping things fresh in romantic relationships.
A famous psychological experiment showed that romantic partners showed renewed interest and commitment to each other after scary or novel experiences. I believe the same is true with other human relationships.
I follow this same thought process when it comes to my remote team. Over the years, we’ve met each other in places around the world, making unforgettable memories, collaborating on projects, and always trying new things together. Just at this two day offsite, various members of my team:
- Heard inspiring stories from leadership
- Attended a book binding workshop
- Did a chocolate factory tour
- Learned how to make sushi together
- Sang late night karaoke
- Hiked 5 miles uphill to learn about San Francisco
- Shared a raucous family style hot pot and Korean BBQ meal
…and more. That’s just in two days! What has your team done lately?
We feel that these experiences fuel our remote work tanks, and over the next few months we use that fuel to foster collaboration after we’re home in our usual daily routines.
The beauty of remote work (done right) is that you can have it all: An amazing team and work experience without sacrificing your personal life and responsibilities.
Here are some things to keep in mind if you’re interested in replicating this model with your team:
- Always Be Planning
Research shows that we get more pleasure out of planning a trip than actually taking it. The same is true with our team offsites. The reason they are so creative and fun is that we start planning the next one as soon as we finish (and sometimes while we’re still on one).
2. Make It A Mix
Over the years, I’ve found that you have to have a nice mix of work alongside fun activities to strike a good balance. Sometimes we’re heavier on work programming, such as when we do annual planning. Sometimes we’re heavier on fun, like this time when we had a few hours of programming in the mornings but saved the afternoon for coworking and fun.
3. Innovate As You Grow
As my team size grew, I found that all team activities didn’t scale the intimate experiences I wanted to foster. Not all people wanted to do the same thing. Recently, we’ve started breaking up into small groups to do different activities or have smaller team meals. We mix the groups so people who don’t work together as closely get a chance to bond, or we allow folks to self select for activities they are more passionate about (hence me doing a 5 mile hike vs a sushi class). After the offsite, I’ll make sure to get everyone’s feedback and we’ll switch things up for next time- nothing is ever exactly the same which gets in that novelty I’m trying to foster for relationships to solidify.
4. Everyone Is Included In Planning
For our offsite, different people volunteer to plan different things. Sometimes we have a housing captain who chooses where we stay according to our budget, and we always have food captains who pick restaurants. I give these volunteers budgets and guidelines for planning so we don’t go overboard. For work programming, we start a list that anyone can contribute to of sessions we’d like to have. Over time, our planning Trello board gradually gets filled out fairly democratically, and in the end, I’ll help make sure the schedule aligns with team and company priorities. Since everyone helps, everyone has buy in in making our time together meaningful.
5. Budget Ahead Of Time
When we plan our annual budget, we make sure to include resources for regular team offsites. The Trello team gets together as a whole once a year at a large gathering, and my team gets together a couple more times over the year. Keep in mind, with a remote team you’re not paying for expensive office space, food in offices, or any of the other overhead that comes with colocation. Using even part of that budget for an offsite will accomplish many of the same goals as colocation.
Settling back into the daily routine, I’m reminded of all the fun times I’ve had together with my team: renting a boat in Texas, indoor skydiving, sightseeing in Vienna, wine tours in Napa Valley, and just hanging out together at countless happy hours. I’ll use this renewed energy to power me through and help assume positive intent in team interactions until the next offsite.