I wanted to share my experience and strategies for successful team management across time zones, cultural backgrounds, and virtual tools. Balancing professionalism without too much rigidity while maintaining a productive and happy company culture can be as complex as making bread (something I’ve been learning to do in quarantine lately). Here are some of the key ingredients that make all the difference.
Trust makes leading a whole lot easier
It’s no secret that fruitful relationships are founded on trust. So, as a manager, establishing that trust is up to you. Make it clear how much you care about your team by speaking to all your employees and building a personal connection with them. This will highlight the importance of establishing relationships with everyone. For someone coming into a remote environment who isn’t used to reaching out when they need help, establishing a culture of trust is tantamount to productivity and collaboration. So, be more than available; show that you’re around. Especially in times of crisis, people need to see that you’re there. That means talking to people on Zoom… a lot.
Do you have to nurture the distributed relationships more? Yes. And here’s how:
You need to substitute the casual presence and check-ins that are easier to do in a physical office. This means taking advantage of all the technology at your disposal. Having a ‘camera-on’ culture is important at Amazee Labs because there’s still a lot of value in paying attention to non-verbal cues. If you see someone looking down, it never hurts to reach out and check-in. Show interest. Remote co-workers aren’t likely living next door to you, so break out a little emotional finesse once in a while and strike up a spontaneous chat. There’s a lot of value in casual conversation.
Trust also means trusting people to do their jobs. That may be an exercise in ‘letting go’ for many managers, but managing through objectives, rather than surveillance, is a better, more trust-based approach – especially for a remote team. It maximizes self-initiative, ownership of the project, creative thinking, and accountability. Even more important than in an office environment, a remote employee's job role and it's connected responsibilities and tasks need to be clearly defined, objectives need to be communicated orally as well as in writing, and follow-ups should be regular and on-going. Having a team structure built on a culture of trust and honesty not only helps things run smoothly on a ‘normal’ day, but it’s essential during those inevitable stressful times.
Real communication at every opportunity
Communication and trust go hand in hand. Simply put, real communication with your team means standing behind what you say and being honest and clear in your communication at all times. To achieve this at a global scale also means being aware of cultural differences and language coding that inform our ideas and expectations of our roles and how we work together. Straightforward and proactive communication encourages the same kind of respectful honesty within the team.
Furnishing easy-to-use communication tools can substitute talking to one another over a desk or gathering at the coffeemaker. There are so many options for this, and standardizing these tools ensures that everyone knows how and when to use each one is crucial and should be a part of onboarding from the beginning. If you want to share a link during the meeting, do you put it in zoom chat or slack? Where’s the best place to recommend a work-related article versus an excellent enchilada recipe? Providing a structure is key here. Defining and using communication structures helps team members feel more centered and more comfortable with communicating as a team.
A dedicated management announcement channel, for example, means everyone knows that if there’s an update there, it’s really important!
When your team’s communication strategy is based on transparency, consistency and respect, then when misunderstandings arise or objectives aren’t met, it’s addressed immediately and doesn’t go unresolved.
Establish professionalism and culture
One way to reap the benefits of having a diverse, inclusive, and global team is to make sure that the workplace culture is universal and clearly communicated. In our case, we are united by our values of openness, drive, integrity, excellence, and positivity. By being transparent about things (such as our expectations of deadlines and punctuality) we eliminate any “secret rules” that exclude or confuse anyone. One example of this at Amazee Labs is our transparent communication during onboarding that we run on “Swiss time” -- our meetings start at precisely the time they are scheduled. Setting this expectation upfront means no one feels strange or excluded if they join at 9:01 am to find everyone is already on the second slide of the presentation.
This is not to say we’re not understanding, because we are -- we walk the walk of work-life balance and flexible time, and everyone knows where and when to keep teammates updated if they need an extra minute before a meeting, an afternoon to be with their family, or time to go dark and work heads down. You can see how these ingredients (trust, communication, culture and professionalism) work together to get everyone on the same page as soon as possible.
Hiring is an important part of cultural fit, and we value it as much as the particular skills we are looking for when evaluating candidates. One of the biggest company-side advantages of having a distributed team is a global talent pool. We can truly find the best person for a role and not be limited to one location.
Find time for team-building and fun
Celebrating accomplishments and funny moments and creating company-wide inside jokes or traditions can be easier if you share a physical workspace, but with a little effort can be enjoyed on a distributed team too.
Sometimes this means sending physical things that can unite a team – beyond the usual welcome swag pack we send chocolates for Valentine’s Day, birthday gifts, and celebrate teams or achievements with special gifts. Our Amazee Labs Global Maintenance team gave everyone a coffee mug with their name and instructions on how they take their coffee printed right on the side. Seeing your entire team, calling in from all over the world, wearing their company logos instantly creates a bond.
You also need to work to create an online substitution for all the incidental conversations that happen over lunch or in the hallway of an office. We do a social standup several times a day to accommodate Amazees in different time zones that allow them to share a bit about their lives and answer burning questions like “What’s the most annoying song ever written?” While the time and permission for these meetings are something the management team set up, the standups are largely community operated – the example question above resulted in a shared playlist full of terrible songs from all over the world.
We also widely encourage people to start topic-based channels for everything from #amazee-pets to #amazee-hair and #amazee-writers. The #amazee-quarantine channel has been a place for employees to share their new hobbies or commiserate about cabin fever through the sharing of truly excellent memes. We also encourage people to schedule time to hang out virtually. With permission and time to connect, Amazees look forward to hanging out with their teammates or getting to know someone new through our randomized coffee meetings.
At the end of the day, it’s still great to have time with your team in person. Current travel restrictions aside, we try to gather each of our teams at least once a year for workshops, holiday celebrations, or conferences. But even in the face of this unprecedented pandemic, we’ve gotten creative – so far we’ve hosted a weekly online pub quiz, a home spa happy hour, and several small gaming groups.
Anything you would do to be a good leader in an office might take more effort or infrastructure to achieve in a virtual setting, but we believe in the advantages of remote work for both employees and companies.
Curious about joining the Amazee Labs team? Check out our open positions.