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Establishing Team Culture in a Teleworking Environment

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Throughout my online career, I’ve been part of several web working teams. On most teams I am just a regular member, but there’s the rare occasion when I find myself the team leader. Like now, for example, when my former graphic design classmates asked me to lead their new studio.

Here’s the problem: we’ve never worked together before. How could we work together and have a united approach to design? What’s so unique about us? Can we figure this out even if we’re working remotely?

To address these questions, we had to figure out our team culture. But as Jason Fried of 37Signals pointed out, culture is not something you create. How do I, as the leader of the team, provide a working environment to foster the right culture? Here are some of the strategies I’m trying:

Deep Involvement

The way that I used to set up web working teams was that each member just kept to him or herself, not minding the work of others or the business as a whole. While this was good for productivity, it wasn’t a good environment for generating new ideas or making everyone feel invested in the team. They need not be involved in the daily minutiae, but they have to know the essential business processes. Getting them involved in research, planning and brainstorming sets up an environment where you can cultivate hidden or underdeveloped strengths. This also provides opportunities for new ideas, often with a fresh, external perspective on how to make the team work better.

But this doesn’t mean that you should hold virtual group meetings for every important business decision. In fact, deliberating on big decisions as a group isn’t a good idea. Those with strong personalities tend to be more expressive of their opinions, while others end up just following the herd. To get the most out of each person, talk to them individually before coming together as a group, so that everyone’s opinion is heard equally and you merely moderate or summarize their ideas.

Encourage Sharing

If your team uses collaboration or social media tools, don’t limit it to business use only. Encourage your team to share other things  – whether it’s inspiring quotes, interesting blog posts, or the odd personal photo. Although these may look like informational clutter, they create a good environment for deeper collaboration. Also, they allow you to peek at each member’s individual culture and background.

Freedom to Engage

When looking at one designer’s recent work, I asked him why his digitally rendered drawings didn’t have the detail and dynamic lines of his hand rendered ones. He said “I’m not used to starting a drawing digitally.”

“Why don’t you draw it by hand, polish it, and then digitally render it?”
“I thought you wanted me to do it this way.” he replied.

While the designer made the wrong assumption, I should have been clear about the flexibility of his workflow from the beginning. Officially giving your team the freedom to find and develop their own processes is important. Team leaders can give everyone tips on how they can do their job better, but nothing beats the strategies they come up with on their own.

Taking a cue from Google (s goog), I also encouraged my team to spend some time working on projects that they’re passionate about. To one, this was a comic strip, to another, it was his own typeface. These projects might not directly result in profitable endeavors, but it allows them to explore different ideas and gain new skills.

Postpone the mission/vision thing

It used to be that whenever I started a new venture, I always had a solid business plan written out, complete with mission and vision statements, SWOT analyses, etc. Now, I just make a mind map or a one-page overview. Here’s why: I realized that it’s rare (or impossible) to know exactly what the final result is going to be like. The same could be said about forming teams. Give your team a bit of time to play around and figure out where you want to go before officially launching anything. Only craft your working manifesto or mission statement when you’ve settled and formed a collective identity for yourselves. Even then, it should only serve as a reminder of the things you wanted to do anyway.

As for my team, I don’t know who we are — yet. But by involving them in the important aspects of the business and allowing them to engage freely in projects that move them, I’m hopeful that we’ll arrive at the definition together.

Do you work with an online team? What is your group culture like and what process did you go through to establish it?

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6 Responses to “Establishing Team Culture in a Teleworking Environment”

  1. Celine you have very smartly pointed the ways of involving a team for producing better results. Several times I got the opportunity to work with remote teams working on different projects at one time. Assessing the mood and attitude of people towards the project has always been difficult. We tend to use basecamp for collaboration and then we realised that its not only about collaboration. Generating a team spirit by taking everyone along is very important, but making people come up with solid initiatives and ideas was an uphill task. Making our people perform extraordinary require them to feel a part of the team and not just a task doer.
    We tried to develop an in-house on line tool for this purpose, and meanwhile we came across an awesome tool called Remindo.
    Remindo is an great web tool for teams. It enables project collaboration and make our team spirits high. The features provoke user to share opinions, links, ideas for producing better results. Active participation and easy sharing of ideas, updates, status and tasks make us a winning team and makes our clients happy. I remember I picked it up from webworkerdaily review long time back. I would like you to comment on your experience with such tools.

  2. I’ve been working with remote teams for a long time and the fact that you know most of your group ahead of time is a big advantage. It helps to humanize everyone. After meeting everyone on the team my first step would be to establish your communication norms. Will you talk over IM or IRC? Do you have daily conference calls or just the occasional email?

    The goal of communication norms it make it easy for everyone on the team to connect. Don’t make your team hunt for an email addresses or worry that they are bothering someone calling them at home. You can always add more communication channels, but having a few established from day one is vital.

    In the end your distributed team will succeed if you get them to realize that telecommuting means you have to talk more than you do in the office. You have to out of your way to communicate and make sure you work together. Give them excuses to talk to each other. Your idea of working together with personal projects is a really good one.

    Once you get your started started it just takes a little time. People need to get comfortable and learn to trust each other. It sounds like you are off to a great start.