One topic we’ve been getting more and more questions about is how to manage remote teams. And specifically, how to build trust and connection with people you never actually see.
“As I am preparing for my new role, my biggest concern right now is establishing a presence as I am a permanent remote manager. How do I connect with my direct reports when I do not see them on a day to day basis?”
One of the things we tell managers over and over is that you want to have a really good relationship with your team. That’s how you get things done.
But when your team is remote, how do you build rapport and trust with people you’ve never met?
If you’re managing people remotely, good relationships and trust actually become even more important. You have to trust your people know what to do and are getting their work done; and they have to trust that you are looking out for them and helping them make progress on their goals.
So how do you make those things happen when you’re only connected by a phone or internet connection? This week, strategies for building amazing remote teams.
Create a long string of positive interactions
When you’re in an office, you have so many big and small interactions with your team, that add up to trust and rapport over time.
Imagine your relationships with people like a filmstrip. If your filmstrip only has a couple of pictures on it, then any bad ones really stand out. But if your filmstrip is super long, with hundreds of great photos on it, the bad ones won’t stand out nearly as much. Overall, you’ll just see an awesome string of photos.
Every meeting, performance review, smile in the hallway, conversation about the weekend: all of these things add up to a relationship. They show you more about who this person is, where you stand with them, what they expect from you, and how they think. They create positive memories and feelings when you think about this person, and help you get on the same page as them.
Without totally realizing it, you are building up more and more information about this person that helps you connect better and work better with them.
When you’re not in the same place, it’s harder to build that innate connection. So you have to force it a little bit. How to do that:
Communicate with the people on your team daily.
Even if you’re not writing an important update every time, it’s important to keep communication going. It’s the kind of thing that adds up over time; it’s no big deal if you go a whole week without talking once. But if it happens again and again? It can be really isolating for everyone.
Send people emails letting them know something awesome that happened on a project. Use a chat tool to send fun stuff without clogging people’s inboxes.
Focus on creating as many positive interactions as you can. Try to create a history positive feelings, so that when the person thinks of you, they think of someone that they like and trust.
Communicate about stuff that isn’t business-related.
Every once in a while, send someone an email that’s purely to build your relationship. Send a quick note asking how their weekend was, if they saw this movie that you saw, or sending them a link to a blog post or product you thought they’d be interested in.
These are the kinds of conversations we usually have in an office environment that tend to fall away completely when we’re remote. If you focus only on business communication, your relationship filmstrip will just be cold. Make it clear to your team that you’re interested in learning about them as people, not just as employees.
Go super positive in your communication!
When you work remotely, you miss out on lots of tiny moments of positivity that happen in the office. Someone saying “wow” while reading something you wrote, or your boss smiling at you while you do an awesome job in a meeting.
Everyone knows how emotionless email & chat can be. It can be surprisingly difficult to tell if someone is happy or neutral or upset. So over-do it on the positivity. When in doubt, go for it and use a smiley face or exclamation point. It might feel embarrassing to you, but it will mean a lot to the person receiving it.
If you’re happy, make sure people know it. Often. And clearly. Don’t assume your team knows how awesome you think they are. The positive reinforcement really matters when a person isn’t getting the ongoing feedback loop of an office.
Connect regularly: at least once a week with your team
Meeting consistently is one of the best ways to build trust and rapport with a remote team. If you don’t touch base regularly, you’re not really working together.
Even if you’re all keeping track of projects and status in a project management tool like Trello or Asana, that’s not the same as connecting 1:1 to talk about what’s going on. See, great 1:1 meetings are about so much more than status.
They are a time for you to talk with your team, to find out more about them, ask how they’re feeling about their work and their goals, and to make a personal connection.
It’s also an opportunity to learn how this person spends their time. How is their day structured? Are they keeping up with deadlines? Remote work offers so much flexibility, so you have to have checks and balances in place to make sure things are getting done effectively.
We created a free 1:1s tool to give managers weekly topics to ask their employees about to keep the conversation creative and interesting.
When you’re doing remote 1:1s, here are a few tips for making them really good:
Set a recurring calendar appointment.
Don’t wing it; set a recurring appointment at the same time every week to talk with each person on your team. The consistency is what makes this time valuable.
Have your employee set an agenda for the meeting, so they can decide what they want to talk about. If you have questions about status or projects, be prepared to ask about that when you have them on the line too.
Even doing this with a peer you want to get to know better is a good idea. If you think the person would bristle at you putting a recurring meeting on their calendar, just set yourself a personal reminder to reach out to them every month or so to find a time to talk 1:1.
Use Skype or video calls whenever possible.
Body language and facial expressions tell you so much about what a person is thinking or feeling. In fact, some researchers think as much as 80% of our communication is nonverbal. So whenever possible, you want to see the person to make sure your communication is as well-rounded as possible.
Plus, seeing the other person’s face makes them more of a person to you. You are more likely to trust and be open with someone who you can see, which is what you need to work together.
Don’t miss the meeting.
Trust is hard to win back, and when you have fewer frames in your filmstrip from not interacting with people as often as you would in an office, it can be especially detrimental to let someone down.
Make the 1:1 meeting non-negotiable. If you have something else come up, reschedule that other thing. If you absolutely must cancel, apologize and reschedule immediately for sometime very soon (ideally later that day).
Reciprocity, feedback, and trust
Making the consistent small investments we’ve looked at above will take you really far in instilling trust and positive feelings in your team. The value of these things over time is what will really matter.
However, there are a couple of other ways to boost trust and understanding a little more quickly too. These are great to employ if you’re inheriting a remote team or joining one for the first time and need to build trust quickly.
Ask for help
Sometimes called the Benjamin Franklin effect, it turns out that one of the best ways to get someone to trust you is to ask a favor from them. The name came from a story Franklin told in his autobiography, of asking a political adversary to borrow a book. Once he returned the book, he found that the other man was much more open and inviting to Franklin, and the two ultimately became friends.
Explored more deeply, this effect comes because of cognitive dissonance. Someone who otherwise doesn’t like or trust you, but who does you a favor, is now faced with two things that don’t go together. They don’t like you, but they did you a favor. And by doing you a favor, their brain assumes, “I must want to help this person.”
And so they help you more, and you move in a positive direction towards trust and rapport.
How can you do this as a leader? It can be really simple, actually.
Ask someone on your team for their feedback on something you’re working on. Or, ask them to review some of your code. Or tell them you’re working on a blog post, and want to get their take on what you have so far.
Keep it simple, and make it personal. Don’t approach it like you’re giving them an assignment. Instead, approach them asking for a personal favor. “You’re so good at ____, so I wanted to get your feedback/opinion/insight on this.”
Not only does this create good feelings in them towards you because they’ve now done you a favor, but it also makes the other person feel important and like you truly value their opinion. By asking for their help, you are saying, “I think you are awesome enough to help me with my own work, which I care a lot about.”
This can make your team more invested in you and your goals, too, since you’ve made them a part of your work.
The next time you’re feeling distant from your remote team, or if you’re about to start work on a remote team and don’t know how to get up to speed fast, try some of these steps.