The entire Zao team is distributed and remote, which means we don’t work from one location. We have no official headquarters or central meeting place. While Justin, Liz, and I are all in Oregon, JT is in North Carolina and Mihai is in Romania. We work with contractors who are based elsewhere, too! While we’ve talked about the benefits of remote work in the past, we haven’t discussed one of the big challenges: team bonding.
When talking with folks who have never worked remotely, there’s always skepticism about just how successful remote teams can be when it comes to…well, just about everything. They’re skeptical about productivity, management, communication, and the team dynamic overall. How do you know things are getting done? How do you communicate effectively? How do you manage people well when you aren’t able to check in at their desk? And how do you facilitate a positive and productive dynamic amongst team members when none of you are close by? How do you create that culture that so many companies rely on to keep morale high and the team motivated?
Remote work isn’t as distant as you think
There are plenty of articles on management, communication, and productivity that are excellently written and worth reading:
- Productivity Hacks for Your Remote Team
- 5 Ways Remote Teams Can Communicate Effectively
- 6 Communication Habits of Successful Remote Teams
- Remote Team Management: 8 Steps to Create a ‘Best Place to Work’ Company Culture
- How to Run a Remote Team
What I’m interested in talking about is team bonding. Recently, at Zao, we’ve been working to either re-implement (or implement for the first time!) activities that bring us together as a team, which arguably improve all of the above as well.
So how have we started bonding above and beyond sharing Gifs in Slack?
A basic necessity: weekly team meetings
Although Zao had a weekly check-in prior to my arrival on the team, it fell off the calendar for awhile. We’ve reinstated it, along with a few brief activities that allow us to connect with one another.
We use Appear.in for this meeting, where we all see each other’s lovely faces. We each share a high and a low for the week, which often can include work related items, but personal ones too. It’s an opportunity for us to ask for support around things that we’re struggling with and share our wins that may have been missed, even if they were shared in Slack.
Thanks to Liz, we’ve also worked in a topic every week that allows us to get to know each other better. Whether we’re sharing our most embarrassing moments, what superpower we wish we could have (and why), or what three things we want other people to know us for, it gives us an opportunity to get to know each other in a way we wouldn’t otherwise.
We’ve also started monthly workshops where we take an hour to do a team activity that offers us deeper insight into how we view ourselves, our teammates, and our roles.
Last month, we each did the StrengthsFinder 2.0 test and shared our results. Our workshop involved reading each other’s reports, as well as discussing similarities, differences, and how those strengths apply to our roles at Zao.
We picked the StrengthsFinder simply because it came up in conversation at some point, and it turned out that Justin, Liz, and I all took ours around the same time seven or eight years ago. We also discussed how ours changed (or didn’t!) and how they represented our maturation as people and professionals.
What I really like about the StrengthsFinder is how in depth the report they deliver goes. It gives a lot of conversation fodder, and we had a great time picking out choice quotes from each other’s reports to say, “This sounds just like you,” or “I’ve seen you do this,” and then provide an example.
I wrote up a few discussion questions, as well; if you’d like to use them for an exercise like this, go for it:
- Which of your strengths do you see at work in yourself?
- How do your strengths impact your role at Zao and the work you do on a daily basis?
- Which of your team members’ strengths do you see in them on a regular basis? Name them with specific examples, if you can.
- What behaviors in your teammates can you connect back to a specific strength?
- How do you think some of your strengths connect with your teammates’ strengths? Why?
I wanted to keep it simple and loose, as I knew the conversation would flow on its own with little prompting from facilitation. It was interesting to hear everyone’s observations, not only on my own report, but also, on each others. It helped me see those strengths and better understand how those strengths represent each person’s values as well, which is an integral part of communicating and collaborating with someone.
For the September and October workshops, we are doing two different exercises that allow us to explore how much each person understands about the project lifespan, from sales to QA, and get a better grasp of their coworkers’ roles in the process.
Don’t balk: silly personality tests help start a conversation
When we were in the midst of our StrengthsFinder conversation, Justin brought up 5 Love Languages. We posted the link in chat so everyone took the quiz, and we proceeded to share and discuss our results of that too.
We’ve also shared our Myers-Briggs, amongst other personality type tests, and discussed them. They may seem silly or meaningless, as they are a poor measure of the whole of an individual, but in this context, they serve as an amazing conversation starter for us to share about ourselves as well as share our observations about others. It essentially creates a jumping off point for the conversation, giving us an easy in for an in-depth look at who we are, how we approach work (and our personal life), and what it means for us.
Coworking LIVE and IN PERSON when we can
While it is wildly unfair that Mihai and JT live so far away (and we complain about it all the time), those of us who live close together are making it a point to get together and work in person once a month (usually during our team workshop day).
I don’t think any of us would choose to work in an office, but there is something refreshing about being able to meet face to face and have discussion in a way you normally wouldn’t be able to through Slack.
Like many remote companies, we also do company retreats where the entire group gets together for a week or so. In our case, since family is such a core value, it involves the whole gang–including kiddos and spouses! We’re in the midst of planning our next one, and even the planning process is bringing us together.
Tiny boosts with Bonusly
When doing some research for team bonding tools awhile back, I stumbled across Bonusly, which describes itself as a “peer-to-peer recognition program.” It doles out bonuses from the team (within a Zao budget). Once I ran it past the team, we decided to give it a shot. Now, it’s integrated with Slack and we can give each other points when someone does something that we appreciate.
The points add up and can be used to buy a gift card, make a donation, etc. We’ve used it a lot to build on inside jokes, as well as recognize a team member when they’re dealing with a particularly tough client or task.
I, for one, am planning to get a Death Star waffle maker once I get to five hundred points. Talk about a bonus indeed.
Working remotely doesn’t have to mean being disconnected. Although I work from home, I still talk to my Zao coworkers more than I do just about anyone else in my life. While all of these things can easily seem like a distraction, or seem less “productive” because they aren’t directly working on billable projects, they overall increase our cohesiveness as a team, and help us understand and appreciate one another even better.
If you’re a remote worker, have you tried some of these tactics for team bonding? Or do you have more suggestions? We’d love to hear them.