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I’m fortunate to work with a bunch of kickass individuals on a team at Automattic called Sparta. It’s semi-mandatory to own traditional Spartan garb; we pass around “This is Sparta” GIFs constantly; and we play the best game of Two Truths and a Lie you’ve ever heard.

We’ve been together in-person a total of two times since the team formed a year and a half ago in July 2015.

When we get together for a meetup, we get along. We laugh with one another. We have inside jokes. It’s hilariously fun.

When it’s time to work, we get stuff done. We share workloads across the team. We cover for one another. We have serious conversations. We agree. We disagree.

A colleague recently asked me how you build this kind of relationship remotely, one where everyone on the team supports one another and rows in the same direction. I don’t have the answer, but I can share how we’ve tried to go about it on Sparta from the start.

I do want to emphasize two points though before diving into actual tactics:

  1. Meetups are great, but they’re just part of the plan, not the whole plan. You have to find ways to build team camaraderie outside of meeting up directly in-person. Meetups are expensive and limited in terms of how many people can feasibly come along.
  2. It’s your job as a leader to make this happen. Well, it’s everyone’s job to propose ideas and move the needle, but if you’re leading a team, the buck ultimately stops with you.

On to the actual tactics. How do you turn a bunch of individuals into a team while working remotely? Here’s a smattering of things that helped.

Friday Fikas

We borrowed this directly from Help Scout. Kudos to Dean for actually implementing this idea and getting it off the ground. Every 3-4 weeks, we setup a random pairing between two Happiness Engineers on Sparta (we’ve included other teams as well). The pair sets up a time to chat for 30-45 minutes (not usually on Fridays). The only rule is you can’t talk about work. The chats are mostly held over Zoom, and they share a screenshot after the chat and detail what they learned about one another. Topics include family, travel, and big life events. These have been huge.

Rotating Hangout Leads

Every week, a different Spartan is up to lead the weekly team hangout, wrangle the agenda, and update everyone on the progress towards our team goals. Even though I’m the team lead, I don’t actually take a turn wrangling the hangout (I contribute agenda items). I’d much rather have someone else on the team directing the ship.

This has had three distinct benefits. First, when it’s your week to lead the hangout, you have to compile our progress towards our team goals. This means that every Spartan is aware of what we’re working towards as a team, where to find specific numbers, and what kind of progress we’re making.

Second, everyone on the team eventually talks during the hangout. I recognize that some Happiness Engineers might feel more comfortable over text, but I think it’s beneficial for everyone to take a spin running the team meeting and talking amongst their immediate team.

Lastly, it helps to turn the team meetings into a discussion instead of one person dictating ideas. There have been team meetings where I talked for long periods of time because I had something important to discuss. I dislike those times. I would rather be part of the discussion and hear what everyone else has to say.

Random Gifts/Cards

When a coworker’s child is sick, they might get a playhouse in the mail from the team. If a Spartan buys a new house, they might get flowers or a gift card to Home Depot. If it’s your Automattic anniversary or your birthday, you’ll probably get a card in the mail from the team. When you join, we send over a card with a Spartan patch you can sew on your bag.

There’s a limit here depending on how big your team is. The important part isn’t the actual gifts; it’s the thought. One of our colleagues, Simon, buys postcards from various travels to send to coworkers. There are many ways to say “thank you” and “we recognize you’re a person outside of work too.” Since the rest of the work is remote, physical gifts work best.

Monthly Appreciation Posts

I wrote about this when discussing handling negativity in customer support. We create a post every month called “Spartan Kudos.” There’s a section for individual recognition and another section recapping one awesome customer comment for each person on the team. It’s a great way to remind everyone how much Sparta accomplishes as a team and recognize individuals for their superhero contributions as well.

Reinforcing a Team-First Attitude

The specific word choice you use to talk about and measure goals has an impact on how the team interprets those goals. There’s a huge difference between “We need every person to sell $10,000 of widgets” and “We need to sell $100,000 of widgets together this month.” I’ll bring back one of my favorite quotes from Bill Walsh:

And this organizational perception that “success belongs to everyone” is taught by the leader.

When talking about goals, I’ve tried from the start to use we/our. Goal updates follow the same verbiage. If we fall short of a goal, it’s not “Tom let us down so we fell short.” It’s “We fell short, how can we adjust as a group to hit next time.” I really value the idea that we succeed or fail as a team.

This team-first attitude is also baked into our “standard of performance” (to call back Bill Walsh). If a fellow Spartan is leading a project or championing an idea, you volunteer/offer advice/comment/whatever they need. If they need help, you lend a hand. It’s just how the team works. It’s the expectation.

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That’s where we’re at so far. We don’t have it all figured out, but we’ll keep trying. If you have tips on building a great team culture in a remote environment, I would love to hear them in the comments or in a blog post!

Photo credit: Team Sparta at the 2016 Automattic Grand Meetup by Kristin Snow with Ash Rhodes’ camera. Ash did the editing. 🙂

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