Trista Taylor
By Trista Taylor on September 08, 2021

How to build your distributed team culture

As the transition towards the hybrid work environment becomes normalized, we’re learning more about what it takes for a distributed team to be successful.


We used to rely on "management by walking around" to learn about team needs, and on metrics like MRR or 360-reviews to measure accomplishments in the workplace. 


But as health officials continue to encourage social distancing, leaders discover that setting the bar for success means shifting how we learn about team health and measure performance. 


Managers interested in bringing their distributed team together, are investing more time and resources to build employee engagement and a team culture that emphasizes learning and working together to reach common goals.


According to Regroup’s TeamUp Model, the elements relating to high-performing teams include psychological safety, enough structure, reliability, execution, and a sense of belonging.


When considering all these components, one thing is clear: distributed team culture takes intentionality to build. We can’t just go through the motions if our goal is to unify and nurture a team culture where people build trust and feel connected while being miles apart.

Create a culture that matters more than metrics

Even before the rise of remote and hybrid work began last year, creating a strong team culture mattered because:

      • Employees who feel psychologically safe are more likely to share ideas with the team
      • A strong team culture leads people to increased learning throughout your workforce
      • Employee engagement is higher in companies with a strong culture
      • Innovation is much stronger in teams with established trust and connectivity 


A study by Gallup shows that a “majority of the US workforce (51%) is not engaged.” This report also states that businesses will experience a 20% increase in sales over those with employees who are not as connected.


This being said, increased sales are the byproduct of strong team culture--not the goal. As John Furneaux (the CEO of Hive) says in his article in Forbes:

“The relationships we have with the people around our office are critical to our success inside and outside of work. The better our working relationships and team cultures are, the better our work will be.”


Nurturing a strong team environment is the key to getting our colleagues to connect, learn, and reach their full potential. As our teams remain distributed and asynchronous, traditional means of relationship building like sharing meals, going out for a coffee run, and having personal conversations between meetings can be logistically impossible. 

Increase engagement and belonging

Increasing team cohesion and effectiveness when most of your employees only see one another through Zoom calls is challenging. Especially when new team members have joined virtually, and people are only talking about work tasks, not about their personal lives.


As we continue living our lives separately, we need innovative methods to bridge the connectivity gap many employees have experienced since the beginning of the pandemic. 


I developed Regroup’s TeamUp model after a decade of hands-on experience helping teams succeed at Google and operationalizing Project Aristotle. The model is action-oriented to help teams improve how they work together.


The TeamUp model is the perfect solution for a distributed workforce because it focuses on creating personal connections between colleagues and establishes a standard of open communication which fosters learning and innovation. 


The model is similar to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. However, instead of focusing on personal fulfillment, the TeamUp framework aims to grow our sense of belonging within the team, and overall team effectiveness. 


This is the basic framework of the TeamUp Model: 

      • Start with building psychological safety as the foundation for your team
      • Next, build enough structure concerning why the team exists, what we’re striving to achieve, and who handles each task
      • Once we work together, we build reliability with each other and execute on the work through decisions, meetings, and other processes
      • Finally, we feel a sense of belonging and meaning. 


Blue and White Funnel Chart Presentation (2)

Optimize strategies for the hybrid work environment

It’s easy to see the team-building process is different now that we’re no longer at the office 40-hours per week.  Establishing authentic connections and working together while solving complex problems is difficult through the lens of the webcam on our laptops.  


Let’s take a deeper look at developing team culture through the lens of Regroup’s TeamUp model. 


The same building blocks for developing an effective culture still apply, but there are some specific ways that our clients have had most success doing this in a distributed team environment. 

1. Develop a strong sense of psychological safety

Psychological Safety is a shared belief that it’s safe to take interpersonal risks like speaking up, sharing mistakes, and asking for help. When teams have high psychological safety, team members are more likely to share different points of view, give critical feedback, and learn from each other’s failures. These behaviors lead to more creative thinking and learning, which helps the team be more adaptive and innovative.    


Get to know one another as people

Psychological safety is the foundation of a team’s culture. As we discussed in the last blog post, psychological safety is even more important in distributed teams. 


As a manager, create time for your team to connect as human beings and share about themselves, not just about tasks and the work they’re doing. If travel is safe, this could look like an in-person team event or offsite. Remotely, this could look like planning a virtual summit with a goal of getting to know one another. 


Use technology that enables your team to connect personally. This can come in the form of virtual lunches or taking 1:1 meetings outside while on a walk. Experiment and find new ways for your team to develop virtual experiences that replace the break room and watercooler.  


2. Create enough structure to set a baseline and minimize miscommunication

Teams need a clear shared understanding about why they exist, what they’re trying to achieve, and who’s responsible for what. Even when there's uncertainty or ambiguity, there still needs to be clarity about what the team is doing and why. It’s important to have the right amount of structure. 


Clarify the how, what, why, and who

To ensure you’re establishing enough structure to prevent unnecessary road blocks, ask yourself: 

      • Why does the team exist? 
      • What are we striving to achieve? 
      • Who are our customers and stakeholders? 
      • What are our priorities and goals? 
      • How will we reach those goals (strategies and tactics)? 
      • Who will do what in the team (roles and responsibilities)?


Get clear on your mission & vision, and talk about it all the time.

In a distributed environment, repetition is key to ensuring alignment around team goals and mission.


Set & discuss team boundaries

As a manager, you set the tone for how comfortable your team feels when they set and respect boundaries around their work and personal lives. It’s especially crucial to be considerate of everyone’s time, as we’re all facing unprecedented challenges.


Here are some questions you may ask during this process:

      • When do we want to have team meetings? 
      • What hours/days should everyone be online and available for collaboration?
      • What personal commitments do you have and how can we support you in them (e.g. caregiving, exercise etc)? 
      • How early is too early to reach out to the team via Slack?


3. Establish reliability to improve trust

It’s important for team members to trust each other to get things done on time with a high level of quality. When team members can depend on each other, this strengthens team trust.


Use technology to help your team track work commitments 

When the whole team knows the status of projects from anywhere, they can share accountability and take ownership over their work. 


Use applications like Slack and Airtable that can help streamline your team’s communication. 


Build trust as a team

Whatever you do, don’t micromanage! While this is tempting in remote work, it can erode trust quickly. Challenge yourself to trust your team and give them what they need to succeed. 


It’s your responsibility as the leader to foster an environment where your team members can rely on and trust one another to get work done. 


Teams often find that more structure is helpful in the beginning as the team works together, but as team members see one another as reliable, some of the structure may not be as necessary.


Remind your team that they must rely on each other to deliver quality work on time

Encourage team members to set and communicate expectations and communicate when approaching deadlines are slipping. Reaching out when other team members need help is a crucial step toward establishing trust and psychological safety.


As a team leader, you must hold people accountable to agreed upon targets. However, remain open to revising agreements as needed when priorities or circumstances change.


4. Create a standard for execution

Execution is about the processes for how work gets done. Effective processes like meetings, decisions, and communications bolster the team’s productivity. Ineffective processes can slow the team down.


Make execution norms explicit

Set aside time for your team to talk about how they want to work together.


Make explicit agreements on how meetings will run, how decisions will be made, and how project handoffs will work. The more clear your team is on these processes, the more effective, and engaged your team is likely to be. 


A great way to start this process is to identify when miscommunications about processes arise, and then to bring the team together to discuss what the ideal state would be, who will own what part of the process, and when you will meet again to discuss how effective the new process is when compared to older methods. This isn't about identifying blame, but rather identifying what's working and not working about team processes, and making intentional shifts. 


Confusion, hurt feelings, and errors arise when these norms are assumed or implicit and there is not a shared understanding across the team.


If you need help in this area, check out our on-demand team workshop for creating team norms for hybrid work.


5. Foster a sense of belonging across the team

We all want to feel like we belong and are valued. When team members have a low sense of belonging, they are not fully engaged or performing at their best. 


When all team members have a high sense of belonging, they are also leveraging their team diversity and fostering a climate of inclusion in the team.


Create a space for appreciation in your team processes

Belonging is about feeling included and appreciated. It's also about feeling a sense of purpose and meaning, where you're able to use your talents, and where people on the team care about you.


In a distributed team, our interactions often consist of assigning and completing work. Distributed workers may only hear from their manager when they’ve done something wrong or when something else is needed from them. 


Building a practice of sharing appreciation and recognition as a group goes a long way in helping team members build a sense of belonging. 


Uncover what gives team members meaning and purpose

While human beings often have more in common than we realize, personal fulfillment is an individual journey. 


It’s crucial that managers connect with their team members authentically so they can discover what motivates and satisfies them on a deeper level. 


This sense of fulfillment comes in different forms.  A few examples include: building strong relationships, making a lasting impact on projects, helping others succeed, using one's strengths and expertise to solve problems, having ownership and autonomy over decisions and processes, etc.


No matter what this sense of meaning and purpose looks like, keying in on these specifics and nurturing what matters most will deepen team member’s sense of belonging and encourage them to be their best all the time.   


Amplify your team’s success

Now that you know the basics of building a strong team culture in your distributed team, it’s time to get feedback from your team and your team’s stakeholders to see what areas to improve. 


Learn more about TeamUp and see how your team measures up by taking the TeamUp Assessment!

Published by Trista Taylor September 8, 2021
Trista Taylor