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Building New Remote Teams

Building a Team
Remote
Onboarding

25 December, 2020

Aareet Mahadevan, Engineering Manager at HashiCorp, describes his efforts to build a new team remotely and how building relationships is at the crux of his success.

Problem

Building a new team of people who have never met or seen each other in person until recently was fairly an exception. But many exceptions became the norm in current times. While the challenges of building a new team remotely are many, they could also serve as an opportunity to re-think what lies at the core of our human interaction and how we can build trusting relationships even when mediated through online technologies.
 

Actions taken

To build trust and team rapport I focused on three activities:
 

Icebreaker sessions

During one-on-ones, I try to learn about every team member’s interests and/or hobbies and use that in my icebreaker sessions. For example, with one of my teams, I arranged for a cocktail making Zoom session where we had a local bartender join us on a Zoom call to teach people how to make cocktails or mocktails. The company would pay in advance for ingredients to be shipped and the bartender would show everyone how to mix drinks with their favorite ingredients or ones that have their name in the name of a cocktail. We also did a cooking class after some of my team members told me that they wanted to learn how to cook. This built camaraderie within the team.
 

Learning about people’s workspaces
When you have a picture of someone’s workspace you can more easily recreate the sense of sitting next to them. Once a week all team members would share a detail or two of their workspace -- their desk, how they laid out their monitor, where do they keep their laptop and keyboard, what productivity tools they like to use etc. They would also show their desktop and how they arranged their icons, but would also share what they do first thing in the morning describing what their typical working routine is -- do they read emails or open Slack, etc so everyone had an idea of what their day looks like.
 

Weekly check-ins without a work agenda

I schedule 30 minutes water-cooler sessions that are optional to attend. It is an opportunity for people to come around and talk about things that are not work-related. For example, we had one team member who took advantage of working remotely -- they lived in a caravan traveling from one place to another and they would talk about their escapades and the places they had visited. I find these weekly water-cooler sessions are nice virtual venues for people to get to know each other and spend time together.
 

In addition, when I have a new team, remote or otherwise, any task that is done during the first quarter is done in pairs. I don’t let anyone go off and do things on their own for quite some time. I try to pair people up on tasks so that everyone gets an opportunity to get to know their teammates and learn about their working styles before they split up and do their own things. For example, if we were developing a new feature for our product one person would take the lead doing the development, and the other person would join to do pair programming. That other person would be on a call and talk through the decisions the first person made. Then, for the next feature, they would reverse their roles. For the first couple of months, this approach will result in a bit lower productivity, but that “lost” productivity will be compensated for in multiples in the upcoming years. They would get to know each other better, but more importantly, they would be able to challenge each other’s decisions and be comfortable with that.
 

Lessons learned

  • You need to spend some time with your team to understand their particular interests and build relationships. This takes much more time in a remote setting.
  • When encountering a difficult or uncomfortable situation people seek a place where they can talk and ease their discomfort or distress and in a remote setting, their first option would be their friends or family. I was intentional in transferring part of that into a work-related context and creating a safe space where they could share their experiences with their team and commiserate with those who readily understand the background.
  • When you plan for remote onboarding you have to think about what is available to each person depending on where they live. Be mindful of individual needs when planning team-building activities, so that everyone feels welcomed and included.

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