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Cultivating Professional Relationships in Remote Teams

Sumeet Moghe, author of The Async-First Playbook and a transformation specialist at Thoughtworks, recently wrote an article titled Patterns to Build Trust and Cohesion on Distributed Teams; this follows the provocatively titled What if I Don’t Want a BFF at Work? Rather than leaders having an overfocus on fostering personal friendships in distributed teams, Moghe’s articles discussed the value that comes from investing in the creation of highly effective professional relationships. Moghe discussed building remote teams with high trust and cohesion, through the use of professional collaboration, intentional remote interactions, and transparency with "clear roles, clear measurement, and clear expectations.". 

Moghe wrote that "some leaders complain about how remote teams have fewer lasting friendships," and responded to this by arguing that "trust and cohesion are far more important" factors to focus on than friendships. While acknowledging that "you’re likely to give your work a harder crack when you’re in it with your friends," he wrote that bonds can also be developed through professional trust in one's colleagues. Specifically, that they are "skillful and capable", "share their knowledge" and can be depended upon. Writing about Martin Fowler's input on this, Moghe wrote:

Martin Fowler once told me that relationship building for professionals often works better by working together than with artificial team-building activities. I agree. No amount of team parties, trust falls and games can substitute for collaborative work. Teams that follow extreme programming often pair with each other. There are many benefits to this, but I’ve also found this to be an excellent tool to build relationships.

Moghe recommends relationship building through collaborative techniques such as pair programming. Moghe wrote that pair programming is an "excellent tool to build relationships," and explained:

When you pair with someone on a task, there are many things you learn. For one, you learn about the level of skill someone brings to work. You also expose yourself to the other person’s perspective on solving certain problems. You teach each other while being in the flow of work. Few activities build more trust than this kind of deep, problem-solving activity.

Laurie Barth, a senior software engineer at Netflix and member of TC39 Educator’s committee, recently published an article in LeadDev titled Being an Effective Remote Employee in which she wrote that personal connections and friendships are essential to effective working relationships. Barth wrote that such friendships were important to understanding "personality types and communication styles" of one’s team. She discussed the importance of remote staff intentionally organising social interactions and over-communicating. Barth wrote that in the workplace "natural connections" are born of shared-interactions over lunches, at the "water-cooler" or even "walking between meetings". Highlighting areas for intentional communication, she wrote:

...personal relationships are most often born out of unstructured time. This could take the form of sending a DM to a colleague to catch up and see how they’re doing, or inviting them to an ad-hoc video chat to talk about a work item and how their weekend was. Find opportunities to develop personal relationships wherever you can.

Barth wrote that "personal connections and friendships are an essential part of any work environment." Pointing out the disadvantages of remote staff, she described how the dynamic of "impromptu interactions" with people outside of one’s team is something that excludes "those who join each meeting via video." To address this, Barth wrote about the importance of remote staff being self-aware as not to go "radio silent" whilst focusing on a task. Contrasting this with a physical office where individuals can constantly see and learn from one another, she wrote that while quiet focus "may feel productive, it misses opportunities for collaboration and knowledge sharing." She advised remote staff to include visibility and communication as part of their ways of working:

...make sure you’re openly communicating risks with colleagues when and where you can. Are you blocked on something? Tell the relevant stakeholders and whoever has the potential to unblock you. Worried about the relative prioritization of tasks? Start asking questions so you can determine a path forward. Working on something in a silo? Document, knowledge share, and make sure people know what it is and what they will eventually have to help maintain.

Discussing the importance of transparency in the creation of a high-trust environment, Moghe wrote that "anything that anyone knows, everyone must know." He points out that this is "a fundamental premise for high-performing teams."

Moghe also wrote that "high-performing distributed teams leave nothing to chance," and highlighted that "everything is intentional." He explained that "if building relationships is important, then that must be intentional too." Moghe recommends that teams stop carrying the "baggage" of physical-office patterns and focus on outcomes required in a remote environment. He recommends five "low cost" areas to start focusing on:

  1. Creating a "culture of one-on-one meetings" for "knowing each other well and supporting each other"
  2. Create a "rockstars channel" on Slack or IM to share "praise and recognition"
  3. Creating a "Cafe Channel" and arranging recurring coffee meetings for "general chit-chat"
  4. Organising "local chapter lunches and dinners" to allow teams to bond "over food"
  5. Organising virtual team events to enable teams to bond "over fun activities"

Moghe wrote that it’s important for organisations to make a financial investment in cultivating remote team cohesion, as it is "easy to talk about building team relationships." He argued that organisations should "recognise that the costs they save on office space, shouldn’t just go back to the bottom line." He wrote that a portion of cost savings should be redirected "into helping teams function cohesively," and said:

You’ll notice that most remote-native companies organise regular retreats, at the team and company level. That’s an example of putting your money where your mouth is.

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