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Team-Building: Long Distance Relationships - Executive Leadership Articles

Team-Building: Long Distance Relationships

Executive Leadership Articles

Team-Building: Long Distance Relationships

Technology has enabled us to work with teammates around the globe, often in real time. For most teams with arrangements like this, regular email contact is the go-to medium for maintaining contact. In addition to communicating clearly and with a written history included in each conversation, email is great for dealing with different time zones. Yet email (and other modes of communication) can also be used for team-building.

First, here is a gentle reminder that the best, most effective, longest-lasting team-building happens organically as a by-product of people doing meaningful work together. You can do as many trust-falls as you want and never see a single spark of true camaraderie, but rare is it that a group of people collaborating on work they believe in fails to establish meaningful connections. Still, there may be times when some amount of artifice needs to be introduced as a way to get the ball rolling.

It seems unlikely to me, but I have seen team-building exercises conducted via Skype and Google Hangouts that, over time, resulted in better feelings throughout teams. Setting aside fifteen minutes or so at the end of weekly video meetings, teams members around the world would take turns leading a getting-to-know you activity, often something simple like “Share Your New Year’s Resolution” or “To Whom Would You Like to Give a Pat on the Back?” Other possibilities are sharing short magazine articles ahead of time for brief discussions moderated by whoever chose that week’s article, or discussion topics where each person in attendance is asked to share his or her responses. Results may not come immediately with this approach, but set the expectation that this will be weekly and that everyone will participate, and you may find that this becomes the thing most looked forward to at the weekly telecom meeting.

If your group isn’t set up for that kind of conferencing, email can work just as well with some modifications. I’ve used something called “Question of the Day,” sending to the team a daily question just to get some conversation going. Popular questions included “What’s the best movie you saw this summer?” “What’s something considered bad manners that you don’t think is a big deal?” and “What’s a household chore you actually don’t mind doing?” Sent to the whole group, everyone is asked to respond sometime during the work day (whenever and wherever his or her work day took place), replying to the whole group. Once the group gets the hang of it, you can assign willing volunteers to take turns asking the daily questions. Another approach is more like a chain letter, where you ask the question of the whole group, but send it along to only one team member. That person answers the prompt, then sends it along to the next according to a defined order. When the last person in the order responds, he or she sends it to the whole group, who can then read everyone’s responses in one email.

When the team at 37 Signals (now Basecamp) began working from remote areas of the world, it developed its Campfire web-based app as a way to take the place of casual, incidental, water-cooler conversation that usually happens when everyone’s in the same office space. Your email or project management software might be great for keeping everyone on task, but an option like Campfire is a place to share silly cat videos, conversation about last night’s game, or ideas for the month’s upcoming birthday lunches. These personal, non-business interactions are often what give us our sense of connectedness to those we work with, and 37 Signals saw early that they were a valuable part of keeping the team together.

Other office activities with long traditions can be adapted for the long-distance team. It might take more coordination and planning ahead, but the office football pool, the NCAA basketball tournament, fantasy sports, secret Santa, and even some modified version of the office Olympics could conceivably do the job. The idea is to keep it real, and to keep everyone interested and involved. Use the tools at your disposal for staying connected to your team, wherever its members might be.


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Team-Building: Long Distance Relationships - Executive Leadership Articles

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