This guide is the final product of two years of research, 300 hours of interviews, and countless learnings from 600 of the world’s top remote leaders.
We hoped to address the hardest part of managing a remote team and the key to a successful company culture: team building and trust. We've made this resource free because everyone deserves to love where they work and who they work with.
The best leaders know that a team’s ability to build trust determines their success. A manager’s job is to guide and grow the people on a team, not just their results.
Here’s the problem: It’s notoriously difficult to build close relationships virtually.
A single icebreaker or game won’t build up the foundation for a relationship. Trust needs regular maintenance, it decays quickly behind a screen. That's why managers need a strategy for team building that involves every team process. This guide includes 10 chapters to help you get started today.
In this guide, you’ll learn:
We use “managers” to describe any leader who manages a team. We’ve interviewed leaders at over 250 tech companies in our research, ranging in size and remote plan. The term “manager” implies a rigid hierarchy but every manager had a different leadership style and organizational structure. We do our best to present tips to help every kind of leader succeed.
Inspiration for this guide was thanks to @MeetKevon, who released an incredible guide on Building In Public earlier this year.
At Kona, we’re building the culture and trust platform for remote teams. We’d love to hear from you, so please reach out @getkona.
Our founding team came together because we’d all been burned by remote work before. Passive-aggressive emails from a boss. Resignations from low morale. An isolating role that led to burnout. The three of us agreed that remote work could be better.
As three students fresh out of UCLA, we looked to experts to teach us remote work best practices. We interviewed 100 remote managers before writing our first line of code for Kona. We’ve interviewed 600 managers to date, and we’re still talking to more leaders every day.
We believe sharing this knowledge can make a better Future of Work. That’s why we wrote this guide and why we created a massive Remote Manager Report earlier this year.
The biggest data point in our research came as a shocker. The vast majority of remote managers mentioned “relationship building” as their top struggle.
We had always seen relationship building as a nice-to-have. It’s office happy hours, Among Us games with coworkers, and GIFs on Slack. How could managers across every function and seniority agree that relationship building was their biggest problem? Why not mention burnout, miscommunication, or motivation?
Listening to our managers gave us the answer. Relationship building is a team-killing problem. The best managers knew that a team’s ability to build trust directly correlated with their success as a group.
Unfortunately, remote environments make relationships decay at a much faster rate than in-person offices. The reason so many teams want to return to a partially hybrid model isn’t productivity. They miss bonding with coworkers in the hallway and sharing ideas over lunch.
Work in a post-COVID19 world won’t be completely in-person. As a result, managers can’t rely on in-person interactions to sustain their team’s relationships and trust.
Remote team leaders have to build relationships while remote. That's what this guide is for.
Team building covers all the processes for building a close relationship with a coworker and a sense of belonging as a team. Remote team building takes these processes and adapts them to a virtual environment. The end goal is trust.
As a result, team building goes far beyond a birthday party for a coworker. It touches every part of a manager-teammate relationship from the first interview to their last day of work. We can’t talk about team building without talking about employee experience.
It wasn’t long ago that a boss meant something very different. Companies measured employees by their productivity. A manager needed to optimize an employee’s production, much like Ford’s famous automobile assembly line.
Employees were a cog in a well-oiled machine and the idea of professionalism ensured they left their personal life at the door. Terrible bosses were rewarded so long as they hit their numbers.
These productivity-first companies lost talent and burnt out their workforces. It didn't take long for companies that focused on culture and employee happiness to outperform the well-oiled machines.
Leaders have realized the value of treating workers as holistic people. In the last twenty years, an emphasis on culture sparked luxurious tech offices. We’ve seen work perks that would make our grandparents furious: child daycare centers, sponsored chefs, and areas for napping.
Last year, the pandemic caused another massive shift by sending everyone home. We adapted to a forced work-from-home environment for over a year. Now, with vaccines and re-openings, the majority of companies are considering a hybrid model in the oncoming months.
A survey by Accenture revealed that 85% of people were more likely to stay when offered a remote flexible work situation. Another study showed 70% of workers preferred hybrid work.
There’s little doubt that the Future of Work is location-flexible. As a result, managers can no longer rely on office perks to build a strong company culture. In a remote environment, they have to leverage their team relationships. Trust and team relationships determine whether entire company cultures sink or swim.
At its core, we’re asking managers to work harder to build teamwork and trust with their teams. It helps to know why before investing time and energy.
We’ll start with what happens when trust is absent.
Patrick Lencioni worked at Bain & Company and Oracle before he started to pioneer organizational health with The Table Group. He wrote The Five Dysfunctions of a Team to cover some of the key ways he’d seen teams fall apart.
It’s important to point out that team dysfunctions have nothing to do with technical ability. Instead, team success is about relationships and the absence of trust forms the foundation for the other major dysfunctions. We've seen similar results in our piece on bad bosses. Their flaws are often rooted in a lack of trust and care for teammates.
At scale, an organizational lack of trust leads to the collapse of companies. We’ve seen this ugly reality through the Great Resignation. With the ongoing reshuffle of talent post-pandemic, people are asking whether managers prioritize them.
In “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team,” Patrick Lencioni also said, “Teamwork is your company’s biggest strategic advantage.”
After decades of research, we have data to back up this statement. Plenty of researchers have covered this topic, but we’ll talk about one study that’s gone viral. In 2015, Google released a study on 180+ teams to illustrate the impact of psychological safety.
We can think of psychological safety as an enlightened state of trust, a state where teamwork can operate without fear.
Google Analysts found that “[I]ndividuals on teams with higher psychological safety are less likely to leave Google, they’re more likely to harness the power of diverse ideas from their teammates, they bring in more revenue, and they’re rated as effective twice as often by executives.”
For a remote environment, trust expands on these benefits.
A record-breaking number of employees have opted to submit their two-week notice instead of return to the office. We dive into why folks participate in the Great Resignation in a longer article, but here’s the TL;DR, poor team cultures and a rising market for talent have led many to reassess their priorities.
People leave managers, not companies. When managers put their people first and prioritize trust, teammates have all the more reason to love their job. Happy teams stay.
Psychological safety does wonders for collaboration and innovation. That’s because raising an idea, especially one that goes against the norm, involves a large amount of risk. When teams feel like their dissent or difference won’t be punished, they’re more likely to innovate and think outside the box.
This innovation allows teammates to work smarter, not harder. In Radical Candor, Kim Scott describes how a small piece of feedback led to big changes for her Adsense team at Google. A teammate recommended they use programmable keyboards to avoid typing the same phrase, leading to a 133% jump in team efficiency. Trust allows teams to act on feedback.
For remote teams, trust does something even more magical. We talked to managers that were highly distributed, some managing across entire continents and various timezones. This concept brings various concerns for in-office managers: how can they possibly stay aligned?
The answer is trust. Trust acts like glue in a remote environment, keeping teams together and reducing misalignment. With trust, managers know that issues and questions will be raised when they need to, reducing micromanagement and helicopter-ing. They also can trust that their team will do their best work, so long as they unblock and support them. One of our favorite managers, Tyler Sellhorn at Hubstaff, relies on trust to manage his team across 19 different time zones!
Now that we’ve discussed the importance of psychological safety, how exactly do you achieve that? And why is it a manager’s job, not that of senior leadership or People Ops?
We’ll tackle the latter question, first.
In our conversations with remote managers, we realized most people think about company culture the wrong way. Culture is ambiguous, so many expect senior leadership to define it. In this, you get a top-down model of culture. We see values defined on bold posters, the mission repeated at company events, and inside jokes baked into fun traditions. But somehow, bad company cultures have these traits and still fail.
Here’s why: culture isn’t defined, but lived.
Every person at the organization has to understand the same values for culture to function. Scaling culture requires both top-down and bottom-up involvement. From the bottom, the people enforcing values and culture are managers.
This is especially true for psychological safety. It’s not enough for People Ops to include Trust as a company value on their hiring page. Managers have to actively preserve it for their teams and departments. Managers often underestimate their influence. According to Gallup, managers account for at least 70% of the variance in employee engagement scores across business units.
Here’s how managers can build psychological safety on their teams.
Vulnerability and shame are the focus of Dr. Brené Brown’s work. When a person can be brave enough to be vulnerable, they open a door for authentic human connection. Though it can be hard to think of work as a vulnerable space, those that prioritize vulnerability can build the trust necessary to succeed.
In Dare to Lead, Dr. Brown breaks down a few of the myths of vulnerability:
We know everything that Dr. Brené Brown shares is true because we’ve seen it. When a Kona customer opens up about something vulnerable and important in their check-in, they’re met with care from managers and teammates. This creates a feedback loop that builds trust over time.
That being said, it’s difficult to be vulnerable behind a screen. There are a few places to start:
Being vulnerable and personable makes sense, but how do you achieve these deep connections with a team of 5, 13, or 30?
Scaling trust is much harder. In addition to how you lead, the processes you create can enforce a psychologically safe culture. This is where team building comes in.
The next few sections of this guide will cover key areas where you can bake trust into each of your team processes:
We can’t talk about team building without, of course, mentioning how you build a team. By baking a foundation of trust into your hiring and onboarding processes, you can grow your team and help them succeed long-term.
Every relationship starts with a first impression. For managers and teammates, this impression starts with an interview. Here are a few tips for setting a precedent of trust while hiring:
The goal of an interview is to get to know someone, and having a rigid conversation can seriously hurt your chances. For a remote interview, managers have to deliberately add a human element. Keep your camera on for Zoom interviews and don’t make a big deal out of dog barks or interrupting kids.
Open up with personal stories and how you relate to your team’s mission. And most of all, listen and show genuine interest. Beyond a candidate's skill set, their personality and passions will be the biggest asset to your team’s culture.
The biggest relief for candidates is knowing what to expect when presenting themselves. Managers should be as direct and clear about the job’s expectations and the rest of the interview process as possible.
This includes sharing time estimates and potential pros and cons of the position. Your transparency while hiring will set a precedent for your transparency in a remote environment. This is crucial for trust.
Part of building trust is establishing reliability. As anyone can tell you, there’s no greater dread than checking an empty inbox long after a promising interview. Leaving your candidates on read, even if they’re eventually hired, sets a bad tone for your communication style. If you’re unable to come to a decision, share a realistic timeline of when they should hear back.
Stick with it, or inform them that you’ll need additional time. If it’s bad news, provide thoughtful feedback where appropriate so the candidate knows how to improve.
Team building doesn’t stop once you bring in the perfect hire. If anything, the work has only begun.
Onboarding sets the foundation for team relationships, but the process is time-consuming and difficult while remote. In a report by Gallup, only 12% of employees strongly agree that their organization does a great job at onboarding new hires. Among the managers we interviewed in the pandemic, nearly 40% had yet to meet their team face-to-face.
Without body language and the social cues you’d get in an office environment, new teammates have to take initiative to get to know their coworkers. When managers fail to help, they can easily fall into isolation and disengagement.
There are a few ways to bake team building into your onboarding:
Miscommunication is far too common for remote teams. In an office, teammates can pick up personality quirks. While remote, not so much. To ensure everyone can get to know each other, create work-with-me guides with details on personal facts and work style preferences.
It’s difficult for new teammates to know who to ask for help in a remote setting. That’s why the Human Capital Institute reports 47% of organizations assign new hires an ambassador or buddy during the onboarding process. By having a designated point person, new hires can start to build a relationship with a key teammate and branch out from there.
Managers will often set up get-to-know-you events in the first week of onboarding. This habit falls apart, however. A few days of fun are hardly enough to build up a strong working relationship. Create a regular cadence of bonding sessions so teammates have something to look forward to. You can also prioritize spontaneous conversations over Slack and little moments of vulnerability.
We couldn’t write the ultimate guide to team building without sharing some of our favorite activities for everyday team bonding. When teams can maintain their "battery of trust," they're likely to be more engaged and invested in the team's success. This battery isn't charged all at once but through little moments of vulnerability and intentional team effort.
Instead of sharing a large list of activities, we’ve broken this chapter into two big categories for remote team building: synchronous and asynchronous.
Synchronous refers to live-time interactions. These are the team building activities most people expect: Zoom hangouts, virtual baking classes, or games that require teammates to be online at the same time.
The most basic, and likely overused, strategy is Zoom icebreakers. These simple questions are meant to kick off a meeting with a bit of getting-to-know-you fun. Bonus points: start the meeting with a custom Zoom background based on the icebreaker.
There are lists upon lists of them, here are a few:
From lavish cooking classes to spooky online escape rooms, these planned virtual activities were super popular during the pandemic. Companies brought in yoga teachers, shipped terrarium building kits, and invited comedians to give their teams experiences to remember. With a bit of money and planning, managers can schedule a fun event for their team to enjoy.
We’ve seen many Employee Resource Groups host entire weeks dedicated to diversity and awareness, inviting speakers and hosting classes. One company celebrated Pride Week and invited drag queens for a spectacular show. Another company shared books on anti-racism and invited the author for a thoughtful discussion. With these events, teams can come together to have fun and gain a bit of perspective.
A particular favorite for our team, weekly game nights help teammates share a bit of competitive spirit and work on teamwork. Some of our favorite games include:
For busy teams and teammates looking to get to know more faces at the company, coffee chats prove to be a fun and quick solution. Apps like Donut randomly pair two teammates for a thirty-minute chat, making it a perfect activity for a lunch or coffee break. Every company runs their coffee chats differently so feel free to set rules and mix it up!
Asynchronous refers to the opposite of synchronous. It does not require teammates to be interacting live time. This kind of team building is an up-and-coming trend, especially as managers face the reality of Zoom fatigue and globally distributed teammates.
As a check-in tool ourselves, we’re a bit biased. We have seen fully distributed teams build trust with Kona and spark awesome conversations fully asynchronously. That’s because messaging tools don’t require instant responses and a moment of vulnerability leads to trust regardless of where you are.
Alternatively, we’ve seen teams create fun Slack channels for discussions. Names like #whereImWorking, #dogspotting, #fluffyCoworker, and #cooking allow teams to open up about life outside of work.
Another thoughtful strategy is care packages and handwritten thank you notes. These take a bit more effort on a manager’s part but can mean the world to the receiver. The key is understanding that everyone has a preference for gifts and that some gestures will be more impactful than others.
You can create employee care packages using items from your company swag store or by working with an employee care platform like Caroo. They create curated and custom care packages that can be sent to the office or directly to employees' homes.
Care packages can also be easily incorporated into your next team building event with a dedicated Happy Hour Box or a team building kit with supplies.
A simple but effective strategy that doesn’t require a slot on the calendar is gratitude. Research shows that a gratitude practice can help with mental health, burnout, and isolation. The important part of positive feedback is to make it genuine and thought-out. (Sloppy recognition can feel patronizing and fake!)
Showing appreciation can come in many forms:
One game from Atlassian parodies the perfect desks you always see on Twitter. On Thursdays, teammates share a picture of their horrendous desks and aim for the largest amount of emoji reactions. Not only does this make the team’s neat freaks cringe, but it also allows for a bit of vulnerability and laughter. Add your own spin by creating a team theme for the week.
It’s easy to think games have to be live-time to work, but many remote companies have had success with async competitions as well. Companies like X-Team have challenges around exercise, hobbies, and learning that teammates can earn points from and apply towards limited edition swag. These games allow for competition without a Zoom call.
This list barely scratches the surface of team building activities. It’s important to keep in mind that team building is a constant practice and that trust won’t be built off a single game or emoji reaction. By incorporating these fun activities and all these other strategies, teams line themselves up for success.
One of the most concerning takeaways from our 2021 Remote Manager Report involved burnout. Over 70% of remote managers reported struggling with burnout and/or mental health issues during the pandemic.
We’re facing a health crisis that will continue well beyond the vaccine. If team building is truly about encouraging a person’s best work, they have to be able to bring their entire self to work. We can no longer pretend that work has nothing to do with employee mental health.
There are a few ways managers can prioritize their employee’s mental health:
This may feel ambiguous at first, but including mental health in your company values sets the tone for employee wellness. Of course, this decision only works if this value is lived: as a manager you must put mental health first and use this standard to make the right choices for employees.
One good example is Buffer. They’ve been prioritizing their employee’s experience during lockdown by trialing a four-day workweek. After six months, happiness and stress improved without a dip in productivity. Buffer prioritized mental health and used this value to guide a major shift in processes.
Remote work has an all-too-common pitfall: when you don’t see coworkers in person every day, it’s easy to assume everything is okay.
As Brené Brown often says, the story we tell ourselves often leads to trouble. Coworkers may spiral into arguments because a curt message is taken as an annoyance rather than tiredness from the sender. A teammate may avoid asking for help because everyone else seems too busy.
It’s crucial to lean into vulnerability and normalize non-work conversations at work. Whether a teammate is struggling with homeschooling their child or a loved one is sick, managers should know what’s going on so they can support them holistically.
Flexibility is one of the biggest benefits of remote work. Without an in-person office, teammates can work in the comfort of their own space and at a pace that works for them. This flexibility allows for errands, family time, and self-care.
Unfortunately, many managers aren’t allowing for any flexibility. A report by OnePoll shares that 67% of COVID-era remote workers feeling pressured to be available at all hours of the day and 63% agreeing that time off is generally discouraged by their employer. This occurs at the expense of their team. We’ve written about why unlimited PTO doesn’t work, but there’s still a massive need to encourage meaningful breaks.
Here are a few strategies for encouraging rest:
We spent the last chapter talking about the importance of team building and fun. We won’t rehash the points here.
However, we can’t talk about fighting isolation without acknowledging how isolation affects mental health. The increased confinement of the pandemic and remote work can exacerbate depressive symptoms. Given that isolation is one of the biggest problems remote workers face, mental health problems are likely to follow.
Some mental health issues require professional help. Companies need to offer resources to help coworkers struggling with anxiety and depression. Unfortunately, there’s still a stigma around mental health issues. In a study of over 1,000 remote employees by Stoneside, only 39% said their employer offered mental health resources during the pandemic.
At the end of the day, teams can only encourage access and healthy practices when they’re willing to have difficult conversations around depression, anxiety, and burnout. This requires immense courage and trust. Part of being a fantastic manager is making this environment part of their key responsibilities.
The tips shared in this guide are a great starting point, but they’re not going to be the end-all for your team. Thankfully, your company culture provides a great blueprint for endless team building ideas and processes.
We’re talking about company values.
As we discussed in Chapter 3, company culture succeeds when these values are lived. Managers can use values as a drawing board for future team building processes, naturally incorporating trust and alignment into their everyday work.
We’ll look at a few examples of how companies translated their values into unique processes:
GitLab is one of the largest remote-first organizations with over 1,000 employees fully distributed around the world. Not only have they written the actual handbook on remote work, but they also have a fantastic process for putting their company values into action.
Values at GitLab follow the acronym CREDIT, which represents the credit they give one another:
For each value, there’s a set sub-value meant to “substantiate” the core value. These sub-values clarify how this value shows up at GitLab. They can be added or removed, depending on what helps the team drive behavior best.
Under “Collaboration,” GitLab has the sub-value “Say thanks.” They’ve expanded this sub-value into the team building process of their #thanks channel in Slack. There are rules of how to thank someone,
“Thanking a person in #thanks should be done sincerely and summarize why you are thankful so the person on the receiving end can easily understand why they are being thanked. Even while assuming positive intent, not all folks are comfortable with public praise. Help this person understand how they went above and beyond and why you felt it was important for the team member to be recognized.”
“Collaboration” has another sub-value called “Get to know each other.” Under this, they’ve developed processes like “virtual coffee chats” for bonding and team building. GitLab employees are encouraged to dedicate a few hours each week talking to other GitLab employees. There are clear instructions for scheduling, diversifying, and getting a chat with leadership in their Handbook.
Doist, the tech company behind Todoist and Twist, is a remote-first company spread across 40 countries and 75 cities. Doist has a value called “Ambition & Balance” that directly aligns with its efforts towards mental health. They’ve written vulnerable, personal articles about the isolation and depression many remote workers battle with. They’ve also shared a few internal policies they’re working on:
These strategies, along with more tactical practices like mental health days and daily mindfulness posts help the teams and managers at Doist prioritize what’s important.
Asana, the team collaboration platform, has a global workforce spread across the globe. They also have nine values, including “Be real (with yourself and others)” and “Heartitude.” The latter describes embracing meaningful experiences and what makes people human.
These values have driven efforts such as Employee Resource Groups (ERGs.) Groups for underrepresented minorities, parents, and caregivers have helped drive community and team building at Asana during the pandemic. The ERGs host monthly events to celebrate diversity and encourage safe discussions about key issues.
In addition, Asana has facilitated “no meeting Wednesdays” to fight burnout and Zoom fatigue. Teams are encouraged to keep their Wednesday schedules free for more deep work and family time. By prioritizing the value “Mindfulness,” Asana was able to create a process that helps entire teams recover.
These are only a handful of ways companies have created team building practices from their cultural blueprint. Whether it’s a move for a company-wide effort or a smaller practice on a team, value-based processes help a culture iterate.
It’s easy to get caught up in new team bonding processes without realizing which strategies need fixing and which are driving results.
To drive thoughtful team building, managers need continuous feedback from their teams.
That’s where employee pulse surveys come in handy.
If the idea of sending pulse surveys causes you to cringe, you’re not alone. Culture surveys are often associated with long-winded performance reviews or so-called anonymous HR surveys. For a busy team overwhelmed with todos, surveys are hardly the first solution for building a culture of trust.
However, when done correctly, engagement surveys can give managers a regular pulse on morale and areas of improvement. Gathering feedback during weekly 1-1s can be too vague. Spontaneous feedback is rarely thoughtful and honest. Surveys allow for more effort, shine a spotlight on trends, and help managers address burnout and isolation before they become much larger problems.
The problem isn’t the surveys. It’s how we write them. Here’s where most surveys go wrong and how to solve them:
Experts recommend sticking to 1-5 questions when sending out a survey. Teammates are more inclined to respond when survey answers are multiple choice or require minimal writing. Always keep in mind survey fatigue: 25% of people will put a random answer to get the survey over with if they’re exhausted by your questions.
Keep your questions direct, specific, and objective. This ensures you don’t lead teammates and collect the most accurate responses possible. By understanding the key metric you’re using to measure team building (let’s use psychological safety for an example) you can ask a consistent question over a quarter to see meaningful changes.
Anonymous responses in a team survey are often deceptive and unhelpful. Leaders do this to preserve privacy, but they make their surveys less actionable as a result. “Anonymous” rarely lives up to its name on a small team. Managers guess the respondent based on their answers and employees soften their responses fearing consequences. In a psychologically safe environment, anonymous surveys shouldn’t be necessary to get the truth.
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