How do you create a shared identity for a distributed team, without the benefit of physical proximity?
Here are some things that I believe are most important:
1) Spend time in shared spaces
Even if you sit in a physical office real work is slowly (or sometimes quickly) migrating to online places like Slack, Zoom, Trello, Wiki or a full-blown Virtual Space.
Lurking there is not enough. For team cohesion to develop it’s important to see and be seen:
- For video-interactions on calls or Looms make sure to have good framing (more or less eye level, with your head and shoulders filling the screen) and light (on your face, not from behind you — you’re not in witness protection yet) as well as clear audio.
- Use your actual face as your avatar across all communication channels (Slack, Trello/Jira, your virtual office). Avoid abstract avatars. You are not a Monopoly piece or a Minion.
- And last but not least: make meaningful contributions to online discussions in Slack, comments on tickets, shared docs, etc. Don’t wait for your final deliverable to be ready — package intermediate steps as building blocks — build on other people’s blocks and let them build on yours. (this is the “B” in the AsyncABC approach to distributed work).
2) Rally around a shared purpose
As a leader you need to communicate and overcommunicate the vision and values for your team. Do it until you hear people echo it back to you, and after that too.
Make it clear and make it visible:
- verbally and in writing while discussing all kinds of ongoing work,
- on your website, in your specs, in your playbooks,
- in 1on1 discussions and group workshops
- with vision boards, OKRs, dashboards/scorecards,
- or whatever other way that is appropriate for your situation.
3) Make history, together
Before you become a billion-dollar company and end up on the Joe Rogan Experience there are simple ways you can accumulate a shared history.
You will look back on it fondly, you will appreciate how far you’ve come and your junior colleagues will be able to engage more deeply with what your team went through to get to where you are.
You don’t have to put a massive effort into it either — it’s enough to set up the right tools and from time to time capture things that happen anyway — screenshots from your MVP, pics from an initial meeting with your first customer, articles written about your product in a major outlet, people joining or leaving the team.
As a minimum I recommend the following two artifacts:
- An official team roster with meaningful information about each team member – team affiliation (if you have a multi-team org), role, when they joined, location, timezone (bonus points for displaying the local time there now), project credits, kudos from other team members, etc.
- An internal blog (and/or dedicated Slack channel or a special Trello board) with posts celebrating milestones, short video-updates, stories with pictures of real-world team meetings if and when they happen, etc.
If I ever visit your team I’d love to see your history laid out clearly for people to enjoy and benefit from.