by Kayla Sheely

Although distributed teams have been around for years, the increase in work from home due to COVID-19 has greatly increased the number of teams that are no longer in the same physical location. And some companies are saying they don’t plan on going back to working in the office the way they were before the pandemic. Distributed teams are here to stay.  

At Voice Systems Engineering, we have had remote workers across the country, spanning multiple time zones for years. Having distributed teams poses a unique set of challenges that requires leaders to think differently about creating culture. According to Jaideep Lamba, Chief Data Scientist at VSE, “In a remote setup, it's easy for an individual to feel isolated and not see the impact of their work – and feel disengaged. Active engagement is necessary for a high-performing team because even if one individual feels disengaged, it will carry over to others and kill the momentum.” 

Another challenge is navigating different time zones. Nancy Tillery is the project manager of a team spread across Mexico and the US. She says, “To keep everyone engaged, we meet formally twice per week to allow team members a chance to work a normal day in their own time zones.” Scheduling, team building, and motivation are all elements of keeping a distributed team engaged. Here are five ways to engage a distributed or fully remote team:  

1. Use technology to stay connected.  

Technology is a valuable tool to build connections, and platforms such as Teams, Slack, and Zoom provide countless options for ways to stay connected remotely. With his team, Jaideep requests video cameras turned on for at least a few meetings a week to get an element of face-to-face connection. He also organizes different activities for their meeting times. He states, “We organize a Kahoot or some other game once a month or every six weeks. Most of the folks in our circle are nerds, so we try to do something nerdy to keep everybody engaged. We vary topics of interest and do demo days to showcase team members' projects." 

2. Be intentional in building social connections.  

Especially with a distributed team, being intentional in building social connections is vital. Allocating time to discuss causal topics like the weather, families, and vacations helps bring an element of the virtual “water cooler chat” that often gets left behind when everyone is remote. For Nancy’s team, they connect in a very natural way. She notes, “Being the project manager, if I do not hear from any of my team members for a day or two, I always make a point to reach out to them and simply ask how things are going. The answers are always about the work but often also include something on a more personal level.”  

Similarly, Jaideep mentions that having these personal connections helps lighten the mood. By trading funny stories, memes, and emojis, the team builds bonds that can help lift spirits when the work gets difficult, or team members run into roadblocks. “They can lean on each other because that's another important thing about team engagement – it's a team sport,” Jaideep comments. “They feel comfortable approaching somebody with whom they can share a laugh versus somebody they haven't connected with at a personal level.” 

3. Go the extra mile in showing your team you care.  

With a distributed team, you have to be extra sensitive to what is going on with your team members since it might not be as obvious as it would be if they were in the office. Jaideep keeps a close eye on his team’s energy levels and motivation. If someone starts to get overwhelmed and Jaideep starts noticing a pattern, he tries to engage early on to help improve both morale and retention.  

Another important area Jaideep focuses on is his team member’s “journey.” According to Jaideep, each team member’s journey is comprised of three different elements – personal life, work life, and general career. “Keeping track of those elements can help me figure out projects that they will be most interested in,” Jaideep states. He enjoys taking his team’s passion for new technology and finding ways to integrate them into projects that benefit the business. “There is excitement when we're going to solve a problem that nobody in the company has solved. And we're going to integrate this new technology that their peers are working on in the big companies. My team can feel that the feedback they've been giving has taken root.” 

4. Celebrate achievements.  

At VSE, we focus on finding ways to celebrate achievements that allow everyone in the company to participate. Implementing employee recognition programs help foster "a collaborative environment where we respect one another and find ways to celebrate each other's successes," says Maryanne Fiedler, VSE's Recognition Program Facilitator. 

Each week in our Monday Morning Meeting conducted over Teams, a different employee gets awarded the “Starfish” to recognize their hard work and collaboration. Additionally, each month employees can nominate coworkers they believe displayed one of VSE’s corporate values through the Values Star Program. Finding creative ways to celebrate achievements within your team can help engage your team and let them know their hard work is being noticed, even if they aren’t in the office.  

5. Find ways to keep everyone updated on the work.  

Many VSE teams use a Kanban board to organize and visualize workflows. Nancy states that her team “uses a Kanban board to keep work requirements in one central location that everyone can read and edit when necessary.” 

For Jaideep’s team, implementing a Kanban board was helpful to create a rhythm that everybody knows. His team also repurposes existing meetings like their Holacracy tactical meetings to include demo days or a sprint review session to include feedback to avoid unnecessary meetings on everyone’s calendars.  

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Both distributed and fully remote teams are here to stay. As we continue to explore a digitally driven work environment, finding ways to engage and motivate our teams will become more and more essential to keep high-performing teams succeeding.