A Blueprint for Creating a Powerful Distributed Team Culture

A Blueprint for Creating a Powerful Distributed Team Culture

By: Bryant Galindo

I recently brought on a strategic partner to help me manage and scale CollabsHQ.

He’s a serial entrepreneur and good friend of mine that believes in the vision of creating a collaborative world where every business leader embodies transparency, authenticity, empathy, and safety to bring forth their vision of their business. Only problem? He is located in Juneau, Alaska while I am in Los Angeles, California. The physical separation is already causing some challenges:

  1. Keeping our energy levels consistent

  2. Staying up to date with what each person is doing

  3. Managing expectations and goals

  4. Staying in contact between meetings

  5. And keeping everything fun and engaging

To be a high-performing, high-impact team, clarity around these challenges is essential.

Setting up proper processes, using platforms like Slack, Notion and Zoom, and being intentional, we move past chaos into clarity, giving our team the momentum it needs to sustain its efforts long-term.

This does take work. But ensuring our team dynamic and culture is highly collaborative as we scale is extremely important to us, especially as we bring on additional employees and staff.

A 2012 study called Virtual Teams Survey Report — Challenges of Working in Virtual Teams found that employees have the following challenges when working in virtual teams:

  1. Little face-to-face interactions affects team cohesion and trust

  2. Managing multiple time zones increases stress

  3. Team priorities and goals can get lost in virtual settings

  4. Virtual communication can be difficult when technology problems occur

  5. Misunderstandings can occur from cultural and/or language issues

Yet companies also report significant advantages, including:

  1. Increase of $2,000 in financial savings per year per virtual employee

  2. Increased productivity that allows for increased collaboration

  3. Higher retention rates of employees

  4. A bigger pool of employees to recruit from.

Which means that when creating a powerful virtual team, you need to balance both the challenges and benefits with one another into a coherent team structure that recognizes each.

To achieve this, do the following:

1. Get clear on the WHY

Every task your employee does should relate back to the company mission and the team goals and objectives. Look to Starbucks for inspiration.

Their mission is, “To inspire and nurture the human spirit — one person, one cup and one neighborhood at a time.” A barista should understand and feel why every cup of coffee they make or warm smile they give connects back to that mission. If they don’t, they do not believe in the ‘why’ of the business. If they can, they’re connected.

For virtual environments, this is especially true.

When disagreements pop up, you are deciding next steps, are strategizing, or even thinking of new ideas, a clear WHY will bring clarity to the chaos. It gives everyone a focus and makes virtual interactions easier, especially when you can’t read people’s body language or energy. As a result you will know where to put the team’s energy.

2. Get in the habit of setting session agendas

Unstructured meetings are a waste of time. Session agendas keeps things focused around the WHY, getting everyone clear on what they are meant to do.

Use this team agenda template or create one of your own via Trello, Notion, or any other project management system.

The point is to keep a running tab of action items, meeting minutes, and goals, because let’s be real people forget.

Best practice: send out the meeting agenda 24-hours in advance of the meeting and give team members an opportunity to contribute to the agenda.

3. Make it fun (include activities that stimulate real-ness)

You can still make virtual meetings and team environments fun.

My strategic partner and I have instituted a number of best practices to keep things fun and engaging, despite not being in the same physical location. That includes having virtual happy hours and movie nights after a long week or sharing stories before the start of meetings to talk about what’s going on for us personally.

Called the “Inspire Me Now!” Hack, for the first 5–10 minutes of a virtual meeting, each of us says a story (either personal or anecdotal) that has inspired the heck out of us. We make sure to relate the story back to our company values, vision, and mission. The story format also makes it so that the person listening can feel the inspiration, resulting in some deep realness, and the one telling the story remembers why he is doing what he is doing.

It’s brought a level of humanity back to our work that I’m incredibly grateful for. We’re no longer just some heads on a screen but rather we are real people experiencing real things.

The same can apply for you. Create activities that stimulate realness and get people to humanize one another.

4. Don’t over-use technology/software platforms

Too much technology can be a bad thing for virtual teams.

From Trello, Slack, Asana, Notion, Dropbox, Google Drive, etc., you can easily overwhelm your team through the various platforms meant to make work easier.

Best practice: don’t use more than 3 software platforms to do project management or communication.

Once you decide which platforms best fit the needs of your team, stay consistent. Always alert team members to changes ahead of time so surprises don’t pop up.

5. Centralize communication & over-communicate

Disagreements, poor productivity, and increased stress occur in the virtual space when team goals suffer because of individual performance.

When team members aren’t getting along, and they start to virtually talk behind each other’s backs, back-channel conversations can start affecting team cohesion. People feeling left out. Gossiping. Some team members having information while others do not.

The success of creating a strong virtual team relies on centralizing communication: a place where everyone can be in the know about everything affecting the team.

How you centralize communication, the amount of transparency, and how you communicate will be the foundation of your virtual team culture. This means if you’re using Slack to centralize communication, have a dedicated channel for team updates. Have one for funny and random things. And pin group norms so when a new team member is on-boarded, they have a virtual pin of guidelines that keeps everyone in the know.

For sample group norms to follow, check out this Google Doc.

6. Make feedback intentional

Keeping virtual teams high-performing requires a culture of feedback.

A powerful virtual team will know how to give feedback so that they call out what is working, what isn’t, and how to improve the working relationship or conditions so everyone can perform at their best.

That’s really what makes a team invincible: the ability to put all their cards on the table without fear of rejection, ridicule, or hurt feelings.

When this level of trust and candor is created, virtual teams are just as good as in-person teams.

Write out a feedback process that standardizes the practice so everyone knows how to get from point A to point B. A sample process could look like this:

  1. Person giving feedback writes up a description of the issue, observations, and the impact that the person’s behavior is having on the team in a Google Doc

  2. Person emails the team member or manager to discuss the feedback

  3. Person shares the Google Doc

  4. Meeting is scheduled to discuss the Google Doc

  5. Everyone stays at the meeting till a resolution of some kind results.

If you’re a startup, and you use the Stand Up model to have team meetings and updates, institute this virtually as well.

Make sure that beyond the process, formal feedback sessions are given monthly or quarterly by the manager so team members know they can expect review sessions of their work too.

7. Be considerate and keep it friendly

Last but not least, remember to keep things friendly.

Team members will be located in different time zones, have things going on personally, or some other issue that you may not even be aware of. So be considerate.

Publish guidelines for webcam etiquette.

  • Do team members need to dress up?

  • Do they have to have their video cameras on every time?

  • Do they have to have an office where no background noise is present?

Get clear on these things early on. Because when technology problems surface (and they will!), these little things can have a way of creating stories that result in people getting resentful with each other.

Bottom line: virtual teams have a lot of challenges ahead of them but creating a powerful virtual team culture is possible. While the technology helps connect, you need to make connection feel real so everyone feels like they’re apart of something. Do that by making it intentional and instituting best practices where everyone can bring their best self forward.

Author Bio: Bryant Galindo is a mediator, consultant, and co-founder of CollabsHQ based in Pasadena, CA. He facilitates co-founder equity conversations and creates virtual learning curriculum for large-scale organizations. He received his Master of Science in Negotiation & Conflict Resolution from Columbia University, and has worked with the United Nations, Union Bank, and about a dozen early-to-late stage startups