When are you the happiest and most productive at work? For me it’s when I feel part of something meaningful. That my work actually matters. When I work with people that I respect and value, who show equal commitment to and appreciation for my work. When I actually look forward to going to work because I know that no matter how tough is the problem I have to deal with, I’ll still enjoy working through it with my colleagues. Some of my fondest memories are actually some of the most grueling days of my career. I find that my best work happens when I can be myself and don’t have to second-guess people’s agendas or intentions. When I trust that what I’m doing is what I should be doing and I trust the people I do it with implicitly.
I’m a firm believer that the foundation of any healthy team is trust. So as a manager trying to build a cohesive team, most of your efforts should focus around building trust. And trust is important in several different directions—between:
- you and your team—that is, you as an individual and also as a representative of the company
- you and the company leadership—without trust in the company leadership you will find it impossible to do your job
- team members
- your team and any other teams that interact with or depend on your group (internal or external to the company)
When people ask me about the first thing they should focus on when joining a new team, I tell them, “Focus on building connections and earning their trust.” I clearly remember those colleagues that helped me through my first few months at every single one of my jobs, and what an impact they had helping me get up to speed, building my confidence, supporting and encouraging me.
You build trust by being:
- present or visible
- responsive and accessible
- honest and open (saying what you think—in a constructive way—and raising your hand when you make a mistake)
- reliable (doing what you say you are going to do)
So far, I haven’t said anything that is specific to distributed teams. But clearly a lot of it is related to communication: how you communicate, and how others can communicate with you. So this is all an application of Rule #1. You have to communicate deliberately, clearly and predictably. Out of sight should never be out of mind.
In my experience, there are two key areas to focus on that will produce the best results for a distributed team. First, set very clear expectations with team members from the moment they consider joining the team. If the team is interviewing a candidate or someone who wants to transfer to the team, be very explicit about how the team works and what will be expected. This is important on any team, but especially on a distributed team, because the situation might be quite different from what the candidate has experienced in the past.
Second, commit to improving communication and creating opportunities for employee engagement regardless of where they are located. It’s very important to be mindful of the different personalities, backgrounds and skill levels in the team, because those differences will have a considerable impact on how team members might prefer to engage. If you manage a truly distributed team you will face some other serious challenges: how to communicate across time zones and how to effectively communicate with people from different cultures, or for whom the company language is not their first language.
So with that in mind, how do you go about building a communication plan for you and your team that will help you build that trust and keep everyone engaged? In upcoming posts, I’ll share some of the approaches I’ve found most useful. I’ll group them around three different goals:
- Collaborating on day-to-day work
- Building team identity
- Developing and promoting an engineering- and company-wide culture