Geographically distributed teams are commonplace, for some larger teams you could say the sun never goes down on them. There are positives to having teams distributed across different timezones but there are negatives too, even if the teams are in the same timezone but located in different places you lose a certain dynamic in the team. It’s not a surprise that some organisations try to co-locate teams allowing them to self-organise and collaborate together more easily.
Co-location is not always possible, which means a strategy needs to be embraced for the distributed teams. Distributed teams will vary in many ways and one of the biggest barriers to team cohesion is ensuring everyone feels part of the team. If you have one location that has over 60% of the team and other people scattered around, those individuals or smaller groups, are in danger of being isolated.
One area that helps break down these barriers is social interaction. For distributed teams I’ve been involved in there is a visible lack of this social interaction, all communication is strictly professional, only work is spoken about on chats or daily updates. There is a real need to know the people in the team, no matter where they are located. In some teams people wouldn’t even know what someone else looked like! This isn’t healthy for any team, at the very least you need to know a bit about the people you work with. Know that they’re human beings too!
For any collaboration to work effort has to be put in, in many ways this is down to the manager to ensure each team member is considering everyone in the team with communication. Each team member has to take the responsibility as well though, the team simply won’t gel without everyone’s commitment.
There are of course many techniques that remote teams can adopt for team building, which are all good, but here is one idea that I called All About Me.
All About Me
This is a page on a wiki (or whichever collaboration tool you use) where you tell people about yourself! There are no rules for what to include but I encourage people to be open and include enough information so others can learn something new about you. Make it visual and creative, having a good mix of text and images helps to the appeal! Trying including:
- career – this could be basic info like what’s on LinkedIn but you could add more personal details. Why a career change? What did you enjoy about a project/role? What was your favorite project/technology?
- photos – family, pets
- first job
- interests/hobbies – what do you enjoy doing outside of work?
- more photos – childhood, embarrassing baby photos!
- any defining moment in your life that you’re proud of?
- did I say photos?
Imagine people reading your page – will they smile? laugh? What did they learn about you?
I setup a wiki page that listed the entire team in a table, then added a second column for each person to like to their All About Me page. I’m sure there are plenty of other creative ways to do this but this allows for everyone’s pages to be found easily.
This is non-intrusive way that people can learn about their team members. It’s not putting anyone on the spot or asking them to speak to the whole team which can make some feel awkward.
The following is from The Five Dysfunctions of a Team:
Simply by describing these relatively innocuous attributes or experiences, team members begin to relate to one another on a more personal basis, and see one another as human beings with life stories and interesting backgrounds. This encourages greater empathy and understanding, and discourages unfair and inaccurate behavioral attributions. It is amazing how little some team members know about one another, and how just a small amount of information begins to break down barriers.
To know some personal details about your team can make a big difference to interaction and mood within the team. The barriers between different locations can be brought down by improving the social interactions.
One negative I encountered was trying to get everyone to complete their page. Most people saw the value in reading the pages from others but it still was painful at times trying to get the whole team to complete them. Some said they didn’t know what to put on their page, which I can understand, so I tried to get them just to start with some photos of themselves then take it from there. Even seeing photos of team members outside of work shows a different side to the person.
All About Me is a simple way to bring teams together. It helps to build a bond within the team that can create trust. From my experience people found real value in this, it sparked conversations and improved relationships, some were so eager to find out more about their team they encouraged others to complete theirs.
Here is my All About Me page, although you cannot see the details it gives an idea of layout (including my embarrassing baby photo – my mum described me as being “rather large” as a baby, she wasn’t wrong!):