Interview: James Simmons on Building Effective Relationships in Remote-First Teams
James Simmons is a business leader with 20 years of experience building teams. He started GameApart during the pandemic when socializing wasn’t an option.
The tool is designed to drive connections within remote teams through games, icebreaker activities, and analytics. GameApart is ultimately about building relationships regardless of distance.
We spoke to James about the challenges of building remote teams and how solutions like GameApart can be a part of a remote leader’s toolbox.
What are some of the challenges when it comes to building remote teams?
I think the biggest challenge is building relationships, friendships, and trust. I think that a lot of it comes down to feeling safe within a team.
For a long time, like many of us, I worked with physical teams. And regardless of how much you like your teammates, or not, you build up a camaraderie when you work in person.
And when you get into the remote space, and you’re on a Zoom call, or a Teams call, or whatever platform you use, it’s really hard to recreate that.
That, to me, has always been a challenge. How do you recreate the dynamics of being in person in a virtual setting?
How do you form relationships with your colleagues if you don’t see them day to day?
You’ve got to be intentional about it. When you’re co-located, you get all the usual casual interactions, right? Like your environment will force you together.
I’ve been a manager in the tech space for almost 20 years now. And there’s an intuitive side to it. You build relationships at work in the same way you build friendships.
And now, because it’s what I do for a living, I’ve backed it up with research. It really is about creating casual interactions. You have to have those stereotypical water cooler conversations to start.
Those casual conversations often escalate to a drink after work, and then you really start to get to know a person. That’s the foundation of an effective relationship.
To create that in a remote environment, you have to be intentional about it. When you’re on the other side of the screen, there is no way to build that kind of relationship by accident. You have to make it happen.
That can be through a tool like ours, or it can just be a proactive manager that makes those connections by scheduling meetings and catch ups.
What are some tips you have for making those intentional connections happen?
GameApart is about remote team building and remote culture building. We practice remote team building as part of our jobs. We use our product every single day. We do it for fun. We also do it to test it.
We get to do virtual Happy Hour, or play games, or do icebreakers, or cook a meal, or listen to a comedian almost every week, because we’re trying out a different aspect of our product. So we’ve been really lucky in that regard.
But, when we first started out, we had none of that. When we first started out, we were actually a team like any other, just trying to get a product out the door.
Of course, we joked around on Slack, we put up little memes and all that. But I was a unifying factor for the team because I knew everyone. As it was a small startup, I had brought everyone in.
But a lot of the people on the team had never even met each other in real life. We started in the pandemic. And so, we really had to think of ways to make our relationships happen.
We started by having a coffee or drink at the end of the day. We made it a point to share things and learn about each other.
Kind of beyond just the fun, right? Because having fun with your team online is a vehicle to get to know one another. But it’s not the end purpose in and of itself. So a lot of teams will say, ‘oh we went and had a virtual happy hour, we’ve succeeded’.
And that’s not really the point. The point of those things is to create the opportunity for teams to open up and be a little bit vulnerable and to share something that they might not have shared or to argue something that they may not have argued about.
Those are actually the things people bond over.
And I think that’s what’s missing a lot of time.
What do you think of proximity bias? How do managers tackle the issue that predisposes them to promoting people they work with in person versus remote employees?
I confess this is something I see a lot myself. The whole remote worker as a second class citizen issue is really hard.
At GameApart, we’re 100% remote. But there is a group of us that are somewhat local within the Southern California area. And so, for some of us, it is relatively easy to jump into a coworking space for a day and have a whiteboard session.
And, of course, the people who work in other states can connect virtually, but it is different.
There is this perception that managers in particular are going to struggle with this dynamic. There are certain things that are still easier to do in person .
The reality is that technology hasn’t hit a point yet where a whiteboard session works as well over tech as it does in person. And maybe, if everyone had a $5,000 digital whiteboard and all the stuff in their home office, that wouldn’t be the case.
This is a space where a distinction needs to be made. You need to decide whether you’re fully remote, a hybrid team, or if you have an in-person component with remote team members.
And I think, to avoid that behavior, there are some mental mindset shifts that need to happen before it really changes.
Part of the GameApart product is about not allowing remote workers to become second class citizens.
For instance, we organize virtual BBQs. And you can take your phone with you to get away from your computer and be out by the grill and do that sort of thing.
This isn’t the same as an in-person experience. But it’s more about acknowledging that not everybody can be here in person. And making the best of a virtual event.
How do you see GameApart resolving these relationship-building challenges in remote teams?
If a manager is trying to be more intentional about building social interactions and building relationships, we provide a toolset to allow them to do that.
Over the last six months, we've completely pivoted into culture building for remote and hybrid teams.
For instance, we started introducing icebreaker activities that can be completed in three to five minutes at the beginning or end of a meeting. Rather than sitting down for 20 minutes to play a game, you can do a quick guided meditation or trivia quiz.
Not all teams have the time to complete 30 minute activities all the time. So the icebreakers work well in those instances.
We’re currently pulling together an HR analytics platform as well. So companies can quantify what they’re doing and see who is participating in these events. If an employee isn’t participating, managers can check-in and see if the employee still feels engaged. They can start thinking about how to connect with each employee in the right way.
At its core, the product is about fun games. But, we’re trying to level up a little and try different things to trigger emotional responses. It’s very early stages but that’s where we’re focusing our energy right now.
Where do you see remote work in the next five years?
The pandemic accelerated this transformation. And it’s not even a case of, it just made it happen five years sooner.
I think it caused a generational leap. I don’t think we would have seen remote work become mainstream for another generation.
With the current generation, executives, managers, and business owners would not have let go of control and physical proximity in the same way. It’s been transformational.
I think over the next five years, we’re going to have to figure remote work out. Remote teams have to build camaraderie. And a few teams are doing this really well, so it is possible.
Over the next five years, the best practices are going to start emerging. People will start teaching it. I think MBA programs are actually going to start teaching how to manage remote teams.
I hope we can find a way to build friendships at work. And I hope it doesn’t become a perpetual transactional gig economy where you interact with people for a few hours a day and that’s it.
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