Forge a Strong Remote Team Culture Through Intentional Meetings and Effective Feedback
When Google commissioned Project Aristotle, the company hoped to find out what makes a team effective. First, they had to define what effective teams were. While executives were results-focused, workers felt team culture was the most important aspect of team effectiveness.
Over the last few years, remote work has taken the world by storm. The tech industry in particular saw a massive shift. While in 2011, only 13% of jobs were listed as remote on HackerNews, by 2021 this had increased to 75%. The tech industry has the second-highest number of remote workers; around 10% of tech workers are fully remote and this number is likely to go up.
Against this backdrop, managers face a dilemma. Building a remote team is an opportunity to get the best talent in any given field. Companies are no longer limited by geography and can benefit from diverse perspectives that may be difficult to find in the local area. Staff can be hand-picked from a worldwide pool of talent. Talent shortages become less of a concern.
But the radical shift in ways of working presents its own challenges. Building a strong team culture is seen as a pillar of effective teams. In the past, this was achieved, in part, by regular in-person interactions and spontaneous water cooler conversations. What does this look like in a remote-first environment?
How a strong remote team culture makes for an effective team
Google’s Project Aristotle examined several metrics before drawing conclusions around what makes an effective team. The research team found that the demographic makeup of a team was of little consequence to its general effectiveness.
But the factors that did contribute were all factors that showed how the team worked together. In order of importance, these included:
- Psychological safety - Team members felt comfortable taking risks around their colleagues and knew they wouldn't be punished for admitting a mistake.
- Dependability - Rather than shirking their responsibilities, team members completed quality work on time.
- Structure and clarity - Specific, challenging and attainable goals were set for individuals and teams as part of their job expectations.
- Meaning - Employees found meaning in their work, whether that’s financial security, self-expression or helping the team succeed.
- Impact - Employees who saw how their work made a difference to the company were found to be more effective team members.
From psychological safety to impact, these building blocks of an effective team can be encouraged by cultivating a culture that encourages communication, positivity, trust, and a blameless work environment.
But how do you accomplish this in practice?
Have intentional meetings
There is a fine line between building relationships via video chat and giving your employees Zoom overload. The pandemic forced many teams to work remotely and scheduling multiple team meetings per day was seen as a way to keep in touch with colleagues as well as getting status updates on outstanding projects.
But stuffing your employees’ diaries with casual stand-up meetings to promote a fun work culture isn’t the right way to go about it. With virtual meetings, less is more.
Research suggests that Zoom fatigue is a real phenomenon. People need to focus more during virtual meetings than they do during physical face-to-face meetings. During a physical meeting, it’s much easier to pick up body language cues, intended tone, and facial expressions. Online meetings make it harder to pick up these non-verbal cues, and require more focus from participants.
This is why some people report feeling drained after obligatory Zoom meetings and have trouble getting back to work.
This creates a conundrum; you want to facilitate a work culture where people feel like they’re part of a team, but you don’t want to overwhelm your colleagues with endless Zoom meetings that may leave them feeling deflated and disconnected. So what do you do?
Co-founder of ReadyTal, Jo Friedman, is an experienced remote leader. She sees meetings as a key tool in the remote manager’s arsenal. But, she agrees, they are a balancing act:
“Too few, or the wrong kind, and team members feel disconnected, lonely, and less motivated. Too many, and team members start feeling like their time and workload are undervalued," Jo explained.
And while a team’s meeting culture could pose issues in both office-based and remote environments, Jo believes these are greatly magnified in the remote context where simple actions that wouldn’t be noticed in an office setting might be scrutinized. She added:
“When a team member has been expecting to attend a meeting that afternoon and it’s suddenly cancelled, it can carry a lot more meaning than it should.
“So it’s important to put thought into every meeting that is scheduled, including who is invited, what the intended outcome is, what the purpose of the meeting is, whether there’s a specific agenda…
“Schedule with plenty of notice and don’t cancel without an explanation.”
Communication is key to ensuring your staff don't get the wrong idea.
Could this meeting be an email?
With that in mind, get really clear on whether you need to meet over a specific issue. Forbes provides a helpful mnemonic to help you decide whether you should meet staff or email them. It’s EPIC, which stands for emotion, purpose, interpersonal, and complexity.
The gist of it is as follows:
- If the topic is likely to elicit an emotional response, have a meeting.
- If the purpose of the meeting is to inform people rather than solve a problem, maybe email them instead.
- If you want to build interpersonal relationships, think about whether you could achieve that via a quick video catch-up or a message.
- If the topic is nuanced and layered with complexity, maybe jump on a call as people tend to skim emails.
If you wish to schedule work meetings for the sole purpose of building interpersonal relationships, and mimicking casual water-cooler conversations, this could work well. Just don’t make them compulsory. Put them in people’s diaries early enough that they can plan ahead to join if they wish, but stress that attendance is optional. Some people just prefer to get on with their work, much like what would happen in a traditional office setting.
The takeaway is that you should still schedule work meetings, but ensure they’re scheduled intentionally and serve a purpose so your staff doesn’t feel overwhelmed. The less is more approach can cultivate interpersonal relationships while also fostering psychological safety; that all important marker of an effective team.
Give feedback often - even if it’s critical
Remote workers don't have the luxury of rubbernecking around the office to get a sense of how they're doing. They're flying solo in their home or workspace, so make it easy for them by inviting regular feedback check-ins.
Providing timely feedback allows your employees to take steps to correct a minor issue before it becomes a major sticking point. Equally, if your employee is doing well, positive feedback may make them feel appreciated.
While providing positive feedback can happen on asynchronous tools and is generally more straightforward to articulate, giving critical feedback is a lot trickier in a remote-first environment.
In an office environment, you might ask an employee to join you in a meeting room or your office for a quick conversation. You might just drop by their desk to mention something small that needs fixing but isn't a big deal. But in a remote-first environment, preparation is key.
Before you contact your staff member, get really clear on:
- What the exact issue is and whether it’s sensitive enough to merit a phone call
- What the context behind the issue is and how you can frame it so employees understand where you’re coming from
- What actionable takeaway you can give the employee so they can begin rectifying the problem right away
Online communication can get muddled and misunderstood. But there is no reason for it, if you make sure you’re crystal clear in your expectations and provide room for discussion.
Clear feedback is actionable feedback.
Next, you’ll want to think about delivery.
Regular feedback should already be a part of your team culture. It fosters dependable team members who value structure and clarity.
It’s a good idea to have regular one-on-one’s scheduled with your staff. Depending on the scope of work and size of your team, the frequency may vary. For small teams, weekly one-on-one meetings may be feasible. For larger teams, you may only have the bandwidth to meet with each of your employees once a month and this may be sufficient to catch up.
When imparting critical feedback, you may choose to:
- Use an asynchronous tool like Slack or Email to address minor issues that should be straightforward to fix without much back-and-forth communication
- Use your scheduled one-on-one calls to discuss more complex issues that aren’t urgent but require discussion
- Schedule an urgent call to discuss a critical issue that needs fixing right away and is too sensitive or complex to discuss over text or email
When communicating with your employee, consider using the feedback sandwich technique, where you ‘wrap’ negative feedback with positive comments. Start off with praising your employee, deliver critical feedback, and then end by saying what you liked.
This makes your employee more receptive to feedback while also making sure they leave the conversation feeling good about themselves.
The point of your feedback isn’t to make your employee feel bad but to provide constructive criticism. Help them feel appreciated while steering them in the right direction.
The feedback sandwich can be used during video call conversations as well as to provide feedback on a piece of work through email or Slack.
If you plan to deliver your feedback during a video call, you could also consider:
- Promoting trust and camaraderie by having a casual conversation first; this will put your employee at ease and show your feedback isn’t a personal attack but rather an opportunity to improve.
- Encouraging a two-way conversation by asking your employee for their own thoughts on how an issue can be resolved.
- Encouraging your employee to provide feedback and suggestions on your own ways of working and managing teams, promoting a two-way relationship.
- Proactively providing feedback by asking your employee to describe their way of approaching a task and suggesting tweaks.
- Promoting a blame-free workplace; if a mistake is made, focus on the solution and learnings rather than pinning blame on an employee.
Providing regular feedback is crucial in fostering a strong remote team culture. People want to know where they stand and how they can improve. It’s much more difficult to gauge progress and expectations when your team isn’t all in one place.
That just means you need to get more intentional and clear with your feedback sessions, so they leave your team members feeling reassured and able to take action to do the best job they can.
Building a strong remote team culture is all about communication
Just because your team is remote does not mean you can’t cultivate a strong team culture. Remote team members are not so different from colleagues you have worked with in person. They want to feel like they’re part of the team, like their contribution makes an impact, and they want to know where they stand. They want to know you trust them to deliver quality work.
This can be achieved by frequent, meaningful feedback sessions that provide clear and actionable feedback for your employees. If they’ve done well, tell them so they feel valued. If they need to improve some aspects of their work, address it quickly so they know where they stand. In remote-first teams, information is power.
Equally important are the meetings you host and how frequent they are. Don’t schedule multiple meetings just because. Make sure meetings serve a purpose so you don’t give your colleague Zoom burnout that prevents them from doing their best at work.
There is nothing wrong with scheduling video calls just so you can get to know your team members. But make these optional if they’re team-wide, so colleagues do not feel forced to join in the ‘fun’ if that’s not their idea of time well spent at work. After all, remote-work is all about choice.
ReadyTal connects remote-first employers with the best software developers around the world. Our candidates come from more than 60 countries and have passed robust language and technical assessments. If you’re looking for talent, get started here.