Shabnam Gideon

Life Lessons for Distributed Teams

Sidecar reader Kayden Knauss asked:

"[H]ow do you make remote workers feel included, heard, and part of the collaboration process? What tools or tips do you have for teammates that they can take and integrate in their daily routine for 'feeling part of the team'?"

Sidecar Remote Life Header

I love this topic because it’s easy to write one of the hundreds of posts about what remote life is like, and best practices for scheduling your day and setting up your work environment, but it’s harder to identify some of the more minute details that can really affect how a person feels while they’re alone on their island.

I’m in an unusual position on this topic, in that I started as a local Focus Lab team member in Savannah, and then moved after 2ish years, and now I’ve been remote for just as long. It’s a hugely different experience, and I’m really thankful I had the time in-office to sort of find my place and build relationships. Now that I have the perspective of a remote team member, though, I can see clearly that it takes two to do this digital tango.

“It’s harder to identify some of the more minute details that can really affect how a person feels while they’re alone on their island.”

So, to help me answer this question, I decided it would be great, awkward fun to ask these folks about their feelings:

  • Alex Sailer, UX/UI Designer. 100% remote. 
  • Andy Fought, Front-end Developer. 100% remote. Worked remotely for 2 years prior.
  • Bill Kenney, Co-Founder and Creative Director. Started in Savannah; decided to move to Jersey after a few years. 
  • JT Grauke, UX/UI Designer. 100% remote. 
  • Kellie Groover, HR Director. Local only.

I read them Kayden’s question, and then asked them to get tactical:

  1. What are some things that the local team does that make you feel included or excluded? 
  2. What are some things that you do/can do to help you feel included?

I’ve gathered our collective ideas below, bullet-list-style for the scanner out there in all of us. Most of these apply to both local and remote team members; for the ones that don’t, well, you’ll figure it out.

  • Send random Slack messages. 
    Maybe you’re reminded of them, maybe something made you laugh and you need to share it with someone. Getting a random thought or funny from a local peep is a real bright spot in a remote day.
  • Use video instead of just chat. 
    We ask all our clients to use video, why do we try to have entire internal conversations via chat? Face to face wins every time, and gives you time to slow down and maybe have a personal convo as well. Speaking of…
  • Ask questions about the person. Pretend you’re at a party or something. 
    I am THE WORST at this. I’m so caught up in bulleted lists and spreadsheets I really do sometimes forget I work with humans, too. Even if it’s not your norm, just a simple chat before the chat builds on that relationship, and that’s the part that makes you feel like you’re part of something.
  • Manage the microphone.
    It’s really hard with a distributed team to ensure there’s enough space for enough pauses in the conversation to give everyone a chance to speak, and to speak naturally. It’s a good idea to use tactics like taking turns, setting aside a specific time to hear from different team members, or designating a mic keeper whose job it is to halt the local conversation and keep idle chatter to a minimum, allowing your remote peeps to get a word in.
  • Write a note. Like, with a pen. 
    Focus Lab provides us with super nice, branded notecards, and encourages us to write notes to clients, to peers, to each other, probably even to ourselves. We all know the beauty in receiving a handwritten note; how nice would it be to do that for someone else?
  • Know thyself. 
    By that I mean understand your personality, and maybe even go so far as to understand if your personality isn’t suited for being remote. Bill is probably the most socially interactive among our remote team, and his experience is very different from mine. I, for one, have to make a very deliberate effort to engage in things, so you have to take care to take care of yourself.
  • Know thy team. 
    You have to be able to recognize where the silos form, and make a conscious effort to reach outside them. For example, it happens that almost our entire UX/UI team is remote, which is great because we’re all pretty good at being remote together. But that creates a gap between us and the branding team, and we have to be deliberate about engaging outside of that.

    Another aspect for local teams to consider: it’s easy to let remote team members be out of sight and out of mind, while it’s easy to have an off-the-cuff convo with your deskmate. Be mindful of the moments you get with peers, and of the moments you don’t get. If you feel like the remote team isn’t listening to you, make sure you’re giving them the opportunity to.

“Be mindful of the moments you get with peers, and of the moments you don’t get.”

  • Go to meetings.
    Don’t get me wrong, too many meetings can really kill your deep work vibe, but even just popping in to say hello at the beginning of a meeting can help you keep your contact up. Go to standups, go to team meetings, pretend you thought you were needed at an internal meeting. Let yourself be seen, and others will see you.
  • Butt in. 
    Stick your nose into conversations that might involve you. This can be hard for the timid among us, or if you’re concerned about stepping on toes, but as a remote team member, you have to take responsibility for being engaged in chat conversations that might involve you. And for local people, please understand that Slack IS our primary connection with you most of the time; we have to insert ourselves, and it’s just a matter of making sure we’re being as helpful and as participatory as we can, because we’re invested in what everyone is doing.
  • Hang out with people who aren’t like you.
    A real sense of connectedness is the sum of all the experiences with all of the people you surround yourself with. Take a moment to notice the people and situations you gravitate toward, and maybe make a choice to reach out in a way or to a person that you normally wouldn’t. It’ll give you not only a new connection, but also a sense of accomplishment, which’ll give you good feels.
  • Have a social life.
    Remote folks don’t have the benefit of a built-in social network. When we “leave work,” we’re not going to run into anyone in the hall or at happy hour. You have to be socially proactive in and out of the office. And you can’t rely on your workplace to provide your whole sense of connectedness for you. Join a running group, change your work environment, volunteer, do something to make sure you’re getting out of the house on the reg. Local folks, make sure you have friends outside of work, too.
  • Sponsor only events that involve the whole team. 
    Focus Lab is deliberate about not “sponsoring” events that include only the local team, since that would clearly make the remote team feel left out. Things we do make happen for everyone include: birthday cards and treats; anniversary gifts; distributing client swag that gets sent to us; Friday virtual “cheers” (we all get in a video room and hang out at the end of the work week); quarterly full team, in-person work weeks or retreats; bi-weekly standup meetings (where everyone joins the video call individually!); weekly all-team meetings; tons of lifestyle-related Slack channels; and of course the same benefits for everyone.
  • Start lifestyle-related groups or Slack channels
    We have a number of channels going for non work-related activities, like fantasy football, fitness, music, beer, parenting, Whole30, and many more. These rooms are super active, and I know they’ve helped many of us change our lives for the better, like working out more, eating better, finding good books to read to our kids. Having spaces like these creates a sense of community that goes well beyond our work.


  • Talk about it.
    Create conversations specifically to talk about the dynamics of being a distributed team. Doing this as a team, as a company, speaks volumes to the team members about how it takes deliberate action to create a level of inclusivity, and about each person is responsible for engaging proactively in that.

“It takes deliberate action to create a level of inclusivity, and...each person is responsible for engaging proactively in that.”

Kayden, thanks for the question; hope I’ve given you some new ideas to work with! Alex, Andy, Bill, JT, Kellie, your input was awesome. Thanks for the talks; miss you all.

There’s more to be written on this topic. Does anyone have any ideas for a follow-up post?

Thanks for reading!

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