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6 Actionable Steps for Better Remote Team Cohesion

Team cohesion can mean the difference between smooth sailing and an uphill battle to success—especially in a remote work setting.

Remote Work

Why is cohesion important in a group?

Even if every member of your team is talented and driven, forward progress isn’t a given. This is true in music, sports, education, and myriad other pursuits. In any type of teamwork, cohesion is a determining factor in repeatable success. It’s possible to succeed as a team with poor cohesion, but everyone will likely be working harder to achieve the same results, and those results probably won’t be as predictable.

Team cohesion is the difference between your daily work resembling a symphony or a tractor pull. If everyone moves and pulls in different directions, even small successes are hard-won, but when everyone pulls together in the same direction, you can move mountains.

So, how do you build cohesion in a team?

Remote team considerations:

Cohesion might look different and appear more challenging to build in remote teams than in co-located teams, but most of the fundamentals still apply. In this guide, we’re going to cover those base concepts, while giving extra attention to some unique team building challenges remote work presents.

Forming, storming, norming, and performing

You might already be familiar with Bruce Tuckman’s forming, storming, norming, performing framework for team development, but for those who aren’t, we’ll cover a quick summary. Small team (and even large team) formation and development often follows a pattern:

  • Forming: Establishing goals and expectations, developing trust. This stage is often defined by widespread dependency among team members.
  • Storming: Articulating roles, setting and pushing boundaries, competition. This stage is often defined by independence, and even counter-dependent behavior.
  • Norming: Finding success, increasing confidence, established routes to success. This stage is often defined by an increase in consensus.
  • Performing: Repeatable success, collaboration. This stage is often defined by interdependency and cohesiveness.

The University of Chicago’s Network for College Success posted an excellent guide to help teams move through “Forming” to “Performing.” It covers the above in greater detail and provides suggestions for activities that can help a team advance from stage to stage.

Although Tuckman’s framework was developed decades ago, it still holds relevance for many remote teams as a helpful lens to view their experience through.

Which stage would you identify as the one your team is in, currently? What do you need to advance to the next stage?

Check in and interact regularly

Check-ins are a simple, effective compass for determining where you and your team currently stand on that map. Even if you think you’re sure you know where you all stand, the results of a check-in might come as a surprise.

While checking in is vital to the cohesion of any team, it’s even more important on a remote team. In a co-located office, it’s easy to cross paths with a colleague and check in informally, face-to-face. This sort of interaction is inherently valuable, and as Ben Waber, Jennifer Magnolfi, and Greg Lindsay share in “Workplaces that Move People,” the data agree:

“After deploying thousands of badges in workplaces ranging from pharmaceuticals, finance, and software companies to hospitals...We’ve learned, for example, that face-to-face interactions are by far the most important activity in an office…our data suggest that creating collisions—chance encounters and unplanned interactions between knowledge workers, both inside and outside the organization—improves performance.”

Creating or defining natural “collision zones” in the workplace can provide a venue for informal interactions and check-ins. In a physical space, those zones could be coffee machines, snack tables, hallways, or bike storage areas—anywhere teammates might congregate.

For many organizations, regular interactions in a physical space aren’t a reality right now. With the success of remote work programs and in the wake of the COVID-19 epidemic, many teams may not choose to return to large, densely packed offices—even when that option becomes available to them.

That’s why building these “collision zones” into the remote work experience is important now, and will likely remain important in the future. For remote teams, building interactions into daily work looks a little different, but in concept, you’re trying to achieve the same thing: a place colleagues come together.

At Polly, we’ve built a few collision zones into our daily routines that help bring teammates together, even if they’re situated 12 time zones apart. For example, first thing in the morning (and simultaneously, as the day is wrapping up), we get together for an optional coffee and tea break. It’s early enough in the morning for our North American team, and late enough in the afternoon for our Pakistan team that other meetings aren’t likely to be scheduled.

We also have a pretty universal love of food on our team. We use Donut to catch up with cross-functional colleagues regularly over a sweet treat. Those chats, while informal and not work-focused, often lead to creative collaborations.

Set, share, and track clear goals

A team that sets and monitors clear goals together will have an easier time achieving them. When setting these goals, it’s important to have the input not only of leadership, but also those who will be working to move them forward.

Goals with the input and influence of both leadership and the people working to achieve them can be more powerful for numerous reasons:

  • Collaborative goal setting provides a sense of autonomy and shared purpose.
  • Team members are more likely to embrace accountability for goals they had a hand in setting, rather than being held accountable for goals that were set for them.
  • Execution details will likely be efficient and appropriate because they’re influenced by the subject-matter experts working on them.

Goal transparency and clarity

Clear goals are easier to achieve. Transparency helps paint a picture of the broader motive and purpose behind those goals, as well as progress toward them. The more clearly you can articulate the purpose behind the goals you’re setting with your team, the better equipped they’ll be to achieve them.

As an individual member of a team, understanding those overarching goals clarifies how each member’s work contributes to them, and how you can maximize your own contribution.

Helpful goal frameworks

One person’s clear goal is another’s murky guideline. That’s why many teams use commonly established goal frameworks to keep everyone on the same page. Goal frameworks can be used individually, or combined, based on the situation. We’ll cover a few helpful frameworks below.

SMART goals

The SMART goal framework helps to set goals that lead to repeated success by getting specific about the details. We’ll cover the basics here, but the MindTools team put together this fantastic SMART goals deep-dive.

SMART goals share these characteristics:

Specific — A SMART goal is specific. It should have a good grasp on whom, what, where, when, etc.

Measurable — A smart goal is measurable. You should be able to calculate at any time whether you’ve achieved a SMART goal. Ideally, you would also know how far you are from achieving it at any time (or by how much you exceeded the goal).

Attainable — SMART goals are ambitious, but attainable within the timeframe you set.

Relevant — SMART goals are relevant to your team goals, and overarching organizational goals.

Time-based — SMART goals are time-based. Without a time window, it’s difficult to judge success.

A good example of a smart goal would be:

“I’m going to increase visits from organic search to our blog by 30% month-over-month this quarter.”

Objectives and Key Results (OKRs)

OKRs are another popular format for goal setting for numerous reasons. Just like SMART goals, they’re effective at multiple layers of abstraction, so they can be just as useful for someone in senior leadership as they are for an individual contributor.

OKRs should always be quantifiable so that you can measure your results against your goals. OKRs are also often measured on a scale of 0-1. So, for example, if the mythical objective was to build a library of downloadable resources, my key results might be something like below:

Q2 Objective: Build a library of downloadable resources

Key Result 1: four ebooks published

Key Result 2: two infographics published

If in Q2, I produced three ebooks, that Key Result (KR) would be rated .75

Ideally, OKRs should be ambitious enough that you rarely score “1”, but specific, manageable, and achievable enough that you rarely if ever score “0”.

Track progress together

Progress can look different based on objectives and the routes chosen to achieve those objectives. It’s important that there’s shared language and concepts around goal tracking as well. The Signals and Measures framework can be helpful in developing that shared language. Our friends at Atlasssian have a great breakdown of Goals Signals and Measures here.

Goals are high-level, outcome-oriented. For example: “Make our blog a trusted, valuable resource for users.”

Signals are how we recognize our progress toward goals. For example: “Visitors are coming more frequently, they’re reading more resources, and they’re reading those resources in full.”

Measures are how we track and quantify specific areas of progress. For example: page visits, bounce rate, average time on page.

Keep good documentation

Keeping good documentation doesn’t just mean documenting everything—good documentation is relevant, thoughtful, timely, and easy to find. There are a few key things to keep in mind related to this.

To start, it’s important to consider the difference between short-lived, ephemeral documentation and long-lived documentation.

If you’re working out a problem quickly or solving a one-time challenge, discussing it in an ephemeral format like chat or on a video call is perfectly acceptable. You may want to tag one of your remote colleagues to ensure they’re aware of the outcome, but beyond that, the issue may not need to be further documented.

If you’re working with a large group, making lots of decisions daily, keeping a system of record can be immensely helpful in keeping remote teammates apprised and current. This is where long-term documentation becomes crucial. For example, engineering teams use version control systems like GitHub or Bitbucket to track code changes. Notion, Coda, Google Docs, Office 365, and Confluence are popular mid and long-term documentation tools. Each of these tools has its benefits and drawbacks, but the best one for your team is the one you’ll use consistently as its source of truth.

A source of truth

Make sure everyone is working from that single source of truth. We’re living in an age of abundance when it comes to technological tools, but that bounty can come at the cost of cohesion if there’s no consensus on which tools to use, or where things live.

When there are multiple sources of truth, it’s almost impossible to work cohesively as a team. Without a reliable, documented source of truth, one person, or even a group might be working on a project with the assumption that they have the latest, most up-to-date information. Instead, they may miss a key piece of data that makes their work obsolete, or at least less impactful.

Foster psychological safety

Simply put, an environment of psychological safety is one in which colleagues feel safe enough to be vulnerable and take risks.

An environment of psychological safety isn’t just beneficial for employees; it can have a material impact on the success of an organization. When Google set out to find what factors into exceptional team performance, the results of that investigation found a commonality across the highest-performing teams, and it’s probably not what you’d guess. Teams with a greater sense of psychological safety outperformed others, even those with a greater percentage of “high-performers.”

So, how do you build psychological safety?

Start by instilling in your team at every opportunity that it’s okay to be wrong—that ideas are inherently valuable—even “silly” ideas. Especially silly ideas.

Reinforce that failed experiments and initiatives aren’t actually failures, but key learning experiences and opportunities for growth.

Amplify the quiet voices.

Every team has members whose voices are naturally louder, and those which are quieter. Quite often, those quiet voices go unheard, to the detriment of the team. Whether it’s a brilliantly creative solution or word of caution, make sure you’re not missing out on the hidden gems of wisdom in your team. Provide an easy and low-risk avenue for those quiet voices to be heard—whether that’s an anonymous check-in on a project’s trajectory or a celebratory callout for a key (but quiet) contribution.

Mind the time zones

Time zones are one of the most visible and obvious challenges for building cohesion in a remote team. Even if everyone on your team is in the same country, they can still be separated by one or more time zones. While one hour’s time difference is usually pretty easy to work around, the difficulty compounds the further you go.

For a globally distributed team, timezones have an even greater effect on cohesion. If the start of some members’ day falls near the end of the day for others, you’re already facing a headwind that can be difficult to overcome.

Even though time differences can be a major obstacle, it’s a solvable challenge.

At Polly, we have team members spread across the United States, Canada, and Pakistan. We manage the time zone issue and thrive as a distributed team by communicating thoughtfully, respecting one another’s working hours, and keeping good documentation.

In Slack, Zoom, and Microsoft Teams, where we do most of our work and collaboration, we use emoji and emoji reactions as shorthand to convey context around messages. For example, if we tag a teammate living far away during their evening, we’re careful to add a 💤 emoji to the message so that it’s clear there’s no urgency for them to answer right away.

We also use a plethora of tools to stay connected and keep one another posted asynchronously on the work that happens throughout the day. While asynchronous updates can be a boon to distributed team cohesion, there are times when face-to-face (or at least screen-to-screen) meetings are the ideal format. In those circumstances, it’s crucial to consider what time it is for your colleagues before calling a meeting.

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How about you?

How are you working to build cohesion in your team? Are there some strategies we missed here that work well for you? Tell us all about it @polly_ai

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