How to foster culture in distributed teams with a team manual

How to foster culture in distributed teams with a team manual

Why is it important to foster company culture in a distributed team when leading virtual teams? To get everybody on the same page. So you can ensure that everybody is moving in the same direction. To give teammates stability and a work environment that they care about.

Give people something to believe in and they will go all the way with you.

Company culture is shown in the underlying rules of how people work together.

  • Do you go around and greet everybody first thing in the morning?
  • How do you celebrate birthdays?
  • What do you wear at work?
  • Do you call out somebody in front of the crew if a mistake happened?
  • Are cigaret breaks forbidden or even the moment when important decisions are taken?

Company culture manifests in the behaviour of your team.
Company culture is what you cannot see but determines the success of your company. And that is why fostering culture in distributed teams is so important.

Make your company culture visible

How can a team manual help foster your company culture? And why is it important for a virtual team to have the underlying rules and norms written down?

Virtual teams are often not seen as an entity but like a bunch of independent workers who add their parts to the greater good.

“The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” (Aristoteles)

Already Greek philosopher Aristoteles knew that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Your product will be better if you create it in unison in comparison to when every team member is just concentrating on their own project and later on the results will be put together.

Your company will be more productive, efficient and successful if your team works together to achieve the same thing.

But to work together a team has norms and rules. If there are no official rules, they will be created unofficially, often unconsciously. So better, sit with your team and write down a team manual with all norms and rules that will help them work together as a team.

Misunderstandings appear with different expectations

We need norms to know how we are expected to behave. Norms help us to understand society, teams, relationships. They give us a frame that we can fill with our action. And if we do not have official norms on how to behave (an official norm in our society would be for example to keep the door open for an older person) than we create our own rules (for example we slam the door closed as soon as we are out, no matter who is behind me, to keep the coldness out). If we do not have official rules team members will create their very own norms that can differ greatly from each other. And that is when misunderstandings appear.

Some examples of misunderstandings that occur within the teams that I worked with:

  • Teammate A was angry against teammate B because B always left work for 2 hrs in the middle of the day to go to sport. A did not know that this was allowed and stayed at work without bigger breaks.
  • C kept posting bug reports on Slack, created a ticket on Java and send a private message to developer D. D got annoyed by the number of bug reports in different locations.
  • E and F felt isolated at work and missed social time with their colleagues so they posted many gifs and talked about their weekend whenever they had the possibility to socialize. G got annoyed by this “spamming” in the sales channel.

Cultural misunderstandings

Virtual teams have the advantage that they can get the best talent from all over the globe. They also have the disadvantage that talent from all over the globe has to work together. But it is only a disadvantage if you do not understand the difference between cultures.

US Americans for example like to start a business meeting with some small talk, weather, sport, last weekend. Germans, on the other hand, find small talk at the beginning of a meeting rather a waste of time, they get frustrated.

When a South African says she is going to send you that file now, you have a chance you have it within 10 minutes. If she said she is going to send it to you now-now, the file better is not important to you because it can take a day, a week or forever to send it to you. Now-now just means somewhen in the future.

Mostly, people are not aware of their own cultural uniqueness. You need to be open in your team and address behaviours that are strange for you and more than once can drive you crazy.

How does a team manual look like?

It looks like you need it to look like. There is no team manual that looks like the other. It is the place where your team’s unique norms are written down.

Write down everything important that your team needs to know. Give them stability and confidence how to communicate, how to behave, how to work together as a team. Leading virtual teams is about understanding that virtual teams need norms and rules like any other team does.

Write down rules how you want to communicate, when to use private messages, what to write in public communication channels, and when to use emails. Do you prefer to hop on a quick video call when you have to write more than 7 sentences? Write down this rule? Your team does not like video calls? Also good, write down that video calls are not obligatory and will only be used for monthly stand-up calls.

There is no right or wrong. They are your rules. It is your team manual.

Do you have flexible working hours or did you establish core working hours? Will teammates reimbursed by the company if they buy work-related software or books? How do you want to organize daily/weekly/monthly stand-ups? You will be surprised how much your teammates’ expectations on behaviour and rules will differ from each other.

Click here to see the full Trello board example of how a team manual can look like.

Example of how a team manual for a distributed team can look like.

How to create a team manual

Start with imagining your perfect working day. Write it down in small steps.
Write down what you do when you start working, what do you work on in the morning and with whom? How do you communicate with whom? What do you do for lunch? How does your afternoon look like and what do you do before switching off your computer?

Then sit down with your team and everybody shares which rules they need, which standards they want, in which areas they need clarification on what is allowed and what is not. The goal is to come as close as possible to their perfect working day.

Brainstorm together with the use of collaboration tools like a whiteboard or a project management tool like Trello, so that you can easily note ideas down and edit them when needed.

Have an open discussion with your team. The team manual presents your team’s rules and that is why everybody shall participate in creating them. The only person that can overrule a suggestion is the team manager (e.g. a team that works in the customer support cannot decide to have flexible work schedules when the customers actually can only call between 11 am and 2 pm).

If you are not sure about adding a rule or not, put it in the team manual and review it after 3 weeks. Like I mentioned before, there is no right or wrong. There is only “this rule works for your team or it does not”.

How do you know that your team manual is done?

Be brave, be bold, experiment when writing down your norms and rules. If a rule doesn’t work for you, change it. It is always better to try something new, then staying with what is not working right now.

The team manual is not made for eternity. Actually, it is quite the contrary. Your team develops constantly and so should your team manual. Review your team manual in short follow-up sessions after every 4 – 5 months to see if you should change, delete or add some rules.

Why the team manager should never create a team manual without the help of the team

People want to participate. If you just dictate rules you run into the danger that the team will oppose the change. If you want to have a true change, get your team on board and create the change with them.

Not every idea will find its way into the team manual. But it is important that every idea is heard. For people, it is not important that all of their ideas are put to action, but that they are taken into consideration.

Fostering culture in distributed teams starts with listening to the needs of your teammates.

Now you only have to schedule a video call with your team and start creating your very own team manual.

Still uncertain where to start?

I offer a 90 to 120-minutes online workshop customized for remote teams on creating a team manual.

(Read this article to learn more about why a coach makes team building activities more successful)

Virtual Team Building

Get to know and trust each other with engaging and fun team building exercises. Bond with short daily activities and team events.

Virtual Team Development

In online workshops you bond, engage, solve problems. Topics: team culture, collaboration, trust, communication, and more.

Meeting facilitation

We facilitate engaging and effective online meetings for you, so that you can concentrate on bringing in your ideas in discussions.

Transition & Onboarding

We support you in setting up processes and structures for your remote team and in onboarding your newest virtual team members.

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