On our first day at a new job, we observe everything that is happening in the office and start to understand what is okay and what it is not allowed. We start building a mental map of what things are like in the office so that we can adapt faster. We notice if the receptionist is smiling or appears cranky, we look inside the meeting rooms and see if people are engaged and speaking or if they have their heads down, we look at people working at their desks and observe whether they have their feet propped up on the table or are focused on work, and we start to get to know them by what they have on their walls, desks, etc.
But what happens when we join a distributed team? Nothing is visible to us, so we cannot build the mental map that typically helps us adapt to a new place and that gives us confidence to feel strong in a new environment. How can companies with distributed team members help them adapt to the virtual environment?
1. Use video ALWAYS!
Start with the obvious: If your company has a physical location, substitute walking through the corridors and peeking through the glass doors of meeting rooms with a virtual tour of the office. If all of your team is remote, do all meetings with video.
It is quite common for employees to object to the use of video. But when bringing a new member on board, make sure he/she uses video from the very first day. Video will help both of you in many ways:
- Better communication: 80% of the messages we receive come from body language.
- Building trust: We only trust people that we know, so video helps us gain more information about a person. Have a quick introductory meeting with the entire team, and while the new person receives training, have 1:1 meetings with the other team members.
- Get your message through: Intercall conducted a study showing that 65% of us do other work during conference calls without video, 55% eat or prepare food, and 47% go to the restroom! If you want people to actually pay full attention, use video.
- Break the geographical distance.
- If your team is multicultural, you are probably dealing with a variety of accents; body language will help you understand better what the others are saying.
2. Put everything in writing
Document everything you say. Our attention spans are short even when we have somebody in front of us, so imagine what it is like when the other person is in a different country, being viewed through a little screen! Do not expect new team members to remember everything you say. Training somebody from a distance is not the same as training somebody in an office; you need to communicate better and more often.
Provide common ground rules
Your job is to guide the newcomer; the purpose is not to give him/her rules that shouldn’t be broken, but to show the person how you work, what is expected of him/her, what to expect from you and your company, and how you are currently playing.
If there are rules are there to be broken in your company, say so, and at least show them how you work at the moment. During the first days, your job is to provide a solid ground where he/she can understand the new environment.
Prepare a handbook with graphic documentation
Avoid, at all costs, handbooks with a lot of text. Have your design team work on the handbook to make it attractive, easy to remember, and navigate.
Keep visual records of meetings
During meetings, use online whiteboards, and if trainings are complicated, record the trainings and have them available for people to check at any point in time.
3. Repetition is key
You will need to repeat concepts and ideas more than usual because those ideas are not being reinforced in the same way that they would be if he/she was in the same office as the rest of the team.
Repeat, but be creative when you do so:
- Create exercises for the new person to solve so you have a good excuse to repeat some ideas that were not clear. Give him/her small challenges one at a time.
- During your trainings, always summarize the most important points seen in the previous training.
- During every meeting, find a different example that explains the purpose of his/her job and why it is important. If those examples have to do with real customers or real team members, that’s even better!
Distance and a lack of bonding make distributed teams rust and break. If you create strong ties between team members from the very beginning, you will have done a lot. If your work methodology doesn’t include daily meetings, make sure that during the first 2 weeks the new team member meets with somebody at least once per day. The meetings should always include the following parts:
- A fun icebreaker
- Questions about previous meetings and feedback about past challenges
- A main topic
- A new challenge proposal
- A fun, short activity to end on a high note
Using solo mentors can be a good way to organize the transition of a new team member, but it can also create some unhealthy dependencies; remember that you can also have meetings that include different people so that the new team member sees all the colors of your team!
Anna Danes is the CEO of Managing Virtual Teams, where she consults for companies with global teams. Having worked and studied in different European countries, Asia, and the US, she provides a multicultural take on business.
Follow her on Twitter: @virtualteams
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