Working with new teammates is hard, and it can be especially hard when you've never met, are all new to the team, are spread across multiple time zones, and/or are going through a pandemic -- all of which were the case for me in July of 2020. I’ll go through the tools and techniques we tried to build trust on virtual platforms, from weekly emoji check-ins to asynchronous video chats, what worked, what didn’t, and why I think being open and vulnerable are key to a successful and happy working relationship. This talk is for anyone who wants to build relationships and rapport with teammates virtually.
Welcome to You Got This 2022. I hope you're having a wonderful time. If you're joining us for the first time, you've got this as a community event series, discussing core skills. I will be talking about building team trust virtually, strategies and tactics that my team has used and why I think this is so important.
Before we jump into all that, we covered a little bit of this in the intro. My name is Carol Huang, a developer community programme manager at Stripe, and I grew up in Los Angeles, although I live in New York City now where it is a lovely below-freezing winter morning! My Twitter and email are up there so feel free to connect with me there, but during the talk is where in Discord you can put comments and questions.
I encourage you along the way to drop in the team has had a with challenges and cover any questions at the end. For now, I would love to hear on the Discord where you're all tuning in from.
A little bit about my work background. I've been working in developer marketing, or community, for a while. The exact term you hear for this can vary. The main point about this is that I think about community a lot - communities of users, communities of contributors to open source projects, communities of team-mates inside a company. And while all of these companies were cross-continental, global, in some way, at the time I worked there, none of them had as much span as Stripe currently does.
A little bit about Stripe: we are a global technology company where we are dual-headquartered in San Francisco and Dublin, Ireland, including what I call a remote hub. Our goal is to build the economic infrastructure of the internet with the ultimate goal of increasing the gross domestic product of the internet. And what that kind of means is only 3% of GDP happens online today. We want to increase in by helping more companies get started selling, get into you in new markets and launch new business models. Enough about that.
In this talk, we're going to cover a couple of things. You know who I am. I want to cover the demon challenges that we face, and why these are important to address for building trust, and that get into the specific strategies and tactics that we have tried, including what they look like in practice, and some tips for implementing them. My team is the developer advocacy team at Stripe across seven time zones. Most are in the remote hub I mentioned earlier which means they're in a location where we don't have a physical office anyway, so we're like an extra virtual team.
From the very beginning this team, created about a year and a half, two years ago, we were cross-functional and don't remotely do the same thing. When I started working with this team, and when I started working at Stripe, I had never met anyone from Stripe, much less anyone from my team, and I never met any of them until a couple of them in the US we managed to meet up more than a year later. Obviously, this leads to quite a few challenges. Not just because we are so spread out, but because we are also all spinning up from a work-from-home stage, a lot of work was going on.
I think we were aware that a lot of things that impacted our lives in the past two years, but some might be very common to you. For example, like I mentioned, I never met any of them. I've worked remotely before, but never actually without some base level of meeting some of my team-mates, and I know this is something that a lot of you do already, but there are all these kinds of two-dimensional images in my head. I mean that both literally and figuratively. They were flat people of whom I only saw one facet, professional employee facet, you know? While we meet doesn't always mean spread out, it very much does in our case.
With time zones, even if we are awake at the same time, it might not be working hours for us, and even in the US, the rhythms of work are different, when I'm trying to eat lunch in the New York City, everybody on the West Coast is starting to log on and respond to messages, so it can be difficult. Related to this of course is finding the balance between sync and async work modes.
That means are you talking with somebody in a real time back and forth where you're able to respond and get kind of more iterative clarification of what is going on, or you're having exchange for each person responds as they're able to? A factor to take into consideration that I don't want to underestimate are these cultural differences in communication.
I don't literally just mean between two countries or two continents - even within a country, north, east, west, middle, there are significant differences in how you might be communicating. So obviously this all makes it really hard to do some basic work things like move projects to the next steps, get consensus, brainstorm, but it also makes it hard for us to do things like feel connected with each other, share kind of emotional states on projects, and build empathy for each other.
Because this is the You Got This conference about these core skills for happy, healthy work life, we are going to focus on the bottom three. These are less about explicit project management and work but more about the fact that we're all different human beings working with others different human beings, trying to make it through this workload. Mainly because I think these three, the diminution, the connection, the empathy, are three vital components of trust. And there are some pretty good arguments for why you should care about each of these if you're not convinced already.
Without connection, you're basically going to be pretty lonely. Research over the past year, if there is anything confirmed, is that loneliness is bad for you. It is bad for your mental health, physical health, and for me, I want to feel some modicum of connection with people that I mentally spend probably 40-plus hours a week with.
That is already enough for me, but maybe for you, you're, "I'm not here to make friends" which is fine, there are reasons to care too, without getting insights into emotional states, you're blind to a lot of things, you're operating blind, and you don't know when you could be helping, regardless of if you're a manager, a team-mate, you don't know about actions or frictions that might be going on with another team, and if you want to think about it selfishly, you don't know what the systemic issues so you might run your head into them over and over because you don't note what is going on. In a less cynical selfish way, if you're trying to be an optimistic agent of change, you can't identify what needs changing in your company.
Empathy is an important one. Without it, you're going to get less help and give less help. People are going to undervalue your work and at least for me, peer reviews are a large part of many companies. You usually have an impact on your bank account if you want to get down to the bottom line. You want your work to be valued and you want people to understand what you're doing is important.
So could you get your work done without feeling connected, and all of that good stuff? Honestly, you probably could. But I bet it would be a pretty crummy working experience where everyone thinks you're incompetent, or you think everyone else is incompetent, and I'm willing to bet most of you want more than that. We interact in a society. Humans are social creatures. We want to be connected, want to know where we can help and we want our work to be to be valued. My bottom line here is that a team without trust is not a team, you're just a bunch of people with the same HR for work.
What is key moving from paperwork to team? We made the three points of connection, open communication - empathy, and we will go over each with specific goals. Now, first of all, building connectedness. It took a good couple of months after the creation of our team before we made this.
We made a private team channel. Before this, we were making do with a public channel on Slack where random people are kind of offered their unsolicited opinions. A lot of stuff was happening in back-channel DMs and we're not on the same page which is difficult when you're not in different time zones. Having the private channel has been a game-changer, helped a ton in creating a safe space for us to talk.
Nothing is going ever be the same to say something in person without big brother listening, but this gave us a place to process information together, ask the questions among the actual relevant crowd, and also vent when we really needed to.
Venting is something that can be useful emotionally and help figuring out what your blockers are, so important to have a safe space for them. Some things you might want to think about before you start one is first of all like are you going to include only people who are literally on your team, or are you going to include people who you're embedded partners, that you basically work with daily as if they're on your team? There is no right answer for this, the way I personally answer it is would it be helpful for you all to have a private space to talk? And this is a little bit self-serving because I was an embedded partner before I joined this team formerly, and if I didn't have the private channel with them, I wouldn't be able to to talk about the things that were impacting us in the same way and talk through and process those.
Another thing to this about before you implement this is kind of managerial levels. I would say that you probably want to include the person who is manager of your team, but what about skip level, the person that manages them, or people who are your manager's counterpart on another close team? The answer to this one is going to differ a lot based on how hierarchical your company is.
Use your best judgment in terms of the HR judgment of your company but the kinds of relationships that you have. The sort of third thing to think about when creating a safe space for connectedness is your retention policy and whether or not you have one. This means in Slack or whatever communication tool you're using, how often things get erased, and if they even get erased. So if you work at a larger company, you likely already have a company-wide retention policy set by IT or security, but think about how often it all might disappear and what impact that might have on what people say, and how useful it will be in terms in terms of sharing information.
For us, things disappear fairly quickly. I think that is something like a month to two months, so I try to use email for things that are important to file away, and our Slack channel for more this is something cool, or can we talk about this in the next 48 hours.
The culture of how your company uses tools like this is going to differ, so this is probably the point on which you will need to think most about how your team fits within the context of your company, and be aware when you use it because it is still a space on company resources. So, speaking of that, company resources, how do we team-build. One of the other things we do is have a social monthly coffee chat.
If you're familiar with working remote, this is a common thing in order to stay connected with people. It tends to be - according to your sometime zones, it could be a coffee break, afternoon tea break, happy hour. We have a few roles so it doesn't become a work meeting. The first one is no tactical talk. You can talk about high-level things, but not like did you see John's response, can you reply to him? Don't do that.
We use this as a space to talk about everything you're doing this weekend to what kind of keyboards we all have, how we're using certain stipends, or certain performance reviews. I would say use it as a space to share as much about your personal life as you're comfortable with and want to.
It is what you talk about in the office on a Friday as you go out of town on the weekend. The last two years in particular have taught us that the global environment of what is going on in our lives really cannot be divorced from work, and it is always helpful to see your co-workers as human beings with a actual life, about and for them to see you that way too. This is a particularly synchronous one, to we have a monthly APAC and EMEA one.
Speaking of asynchronous, we use Marco polo. I've described it heard as Snapchat for millennials. It basically lets you share a short video or picture plus audio clips with each other. And this is kind of a light weight optional way to share parts of our days or weekends with each other with people in Ireland, the Netherlands, Japan, as well as seven states across the US, I get to see things like vistas of of the Irish countryside, and mousse in among Tanya, and vineyards in California. I think it is a sweet deal.
This is also - key - a non-work channel. This is not a part of your official work computer and I don't mean this for liability reasons, but also for the mental divide and difference that that brings to you.
Speaking of doing things together, I hope it's a given that you are doing remote team-building events. I hope Europe company understands why these are key. What I would encourage with these is to include the people on other teams that you work with closely. A lot of the talk has been focused on your direct team-mates but your co-workers have less of a reason to know what you're doing day-to-day.
If you're familiar with organisational behaviour theory, these are weak ties, and these are more important ... these lead to things like better innovation, problem-solving, doing great things as a cross-functional team, but for me they are also important because they help you feel more connected because one of the basic building blocks of feeling connected with others is having the same experiences of basically going through the roughly the same emotions at the same time. So just overall, some tips for implementing these. Up know, be the community you want to see.
Our group chat in particular, like I think because of the make-up of our team, it is a very affirming one. We're people who like to recognise what everybody has contributed, even if it sometimes means shouting out what every single person has shared, and it's important to be aware that we all have different levels of interaction as we have different levels of time and emotional resources, and that is key that this is okay, that this is all optional, because nobody wants to be forced to team-build. That's a great episode of the office but a terrible experience to go through.
What you want is to become part of a web, build a community, whether a private channel or video group, that people want to be a part of, and model that behaviour yourself. Of course, when we talk about modelling behaviour, culture is a set of norms that has its own inertia. As new people come in, that culture will shift a bit, and I see this with team-mates who joined in the past two months, but also shift things up a little bit, and a delightful turn of events for me, Marco Polo has become pet-focused.
I've seen my co-worker's puppies grow up in the past year, catch up on a co-worker's cat, these are all things that humanise us for each other, and personally help me feel more connected which is key to building trust down the road. We have a virtual Fika which is a traditional Swedish coffee and snacks chilling for a bit, doing it at the beginning of the week is a great way to start things off. I like that idea. I might steal that. Sharing emotional state. What does this actually mean?
Basically, this just means share how the project is going, not just what is getting done. If you don't like thinking about this in terms of emotion or that doesn't resonate as much with you, you can try to think about it as an establishment of energy on a project or their work. Where is energy being directed? Where is energy being sapped? Obviously, clear benefits for people like me to identify where processes are breaking down, but for managers trying to support their direct reports, this can be a more accessible and comfortable way for some people to express that they need help without feeling like they're complaining.
This is something I want to take a moment to point out. It's demon for people have trouble asking for help either from their manager or co-worker when they don't trust them, especially in our field where imposter syndrome runs rampant. It can be really hard to personally recognise that something you're stuck on isn't something you should know already, or will get you called out as an imposter for asking for help with.
That's why I think it is important if you're more senior whether you're a manager or not, it's key to model this vulnerability, because the more of these emotional states that you're personally able to share, the more your team-mates will trust you in turn to share, which hopefully means you'll be able to communicate more clearly and identify what the real issues are to make your work life better. N
ow we touched upon birch the different diminution norms a little bit in the beginning, and this could be a whole topic on its own, I'm sure it is. People can have different ways of communicating around the world, the United States, as an example, while I'm from Los Angeles, I've lived in New York City my entire working life, and the norms and stereotypes for the north-east coast are direct, clear, straight to the point. However, another way I might describe this is very rude, too blunt, without any social niceties. There is a lot of different ways this can come across, so how do you convey emotional states accurately when somebody might not recognise what you're trying to do? So kind of a difficult answer here is give them the benefit of the doubt.
Be curious, not judgmental, hopefully bank on the currency of trust that you already have. You know, hopefully, you've already built up feelings of connectedness so you don't automatically assume they're an idiot, maybe you've learned more about how they speak and communicate through your other avenues of building connectedness, but the other short is read this book, the Culture Map, by Erin Meyer, I know who read this as a company were reading it as a team, and it helps you to have a possible framework to start understanding things.
It doesn't have the answers for everything, it's not going to give you a direct translation but at least gives you different ways to this about why somebody might be coming across a certain way to you when it is clearly not what they're intending.
So, I want to clarify these are all the work in progress for all of us. I love to hear on the Discord how you communicate energy and emotion to your team-mates. I hear people talking about group conversation dynamics. BBC talk more about that later. I want to emphasise here is we all have a wide range of communication tools, ranging from emoji reactions, to emojis, to text, to audio, to video. Use all of them appropriately when they will add the most colour.
Add in colour commentary in async stand-ups. I'm notorious for adding emojis. Other bits of commentary that I particularly like for my co-workers is laying out what is blocking or frustrating them, what they hope to do that day in addition to what they plan to do that day, and also like a mini assessment of what keeps getting kicked down the line and maybe a thought about why that is. Usually for me, reading through these, I can get enough of a sense of where my team-mate's energy is going throughout the course of a week, and also insight into other things happening, like whether they're moving to a new house, city, or even a new country. You know, basically don't constrain everything to one tool.
Speaking of energy, you know, if you're just trying to get a sense of how everybody feels about something, definitely just try a quick emoji poll to get a pulse. That's a lot easier than to ask somebody to click a button than to ask them hey, what do you think and type out a broad spectrum of emotions and opinions out. Make it easy for them. Just, especially if you're not sure whether everybody is on board before you're moving forward on something, because it can give you a sense of where your team might be unhappy or happy.
And I kind of touched upon this earlier, but like use all your tools, Stripe is a video-heavy company so most people are used to being on camera. I still have video meetings either sync or AI sync with everybody on my team - async. When we're having meetings within whether that is async or sync video or audio, we have multiple channels of communication going.
So it is synchronous Zoom meetings we have a slide Slack chat as people make comments on things, joke, react, giving you additional is that I had ings how people are feeling about something without disrupting the flow of everything, because as I'm sure we are all aware, it can be awkward when you feel like you want to give a reaction, and they will stop what they're saying with the minute delay.
With asynchronous ones I usually accompany an audio or video clip with descriptive text or emojis. We don't get a chance to have face-to-face real time meetings halfway around the world and it is more important I'm understood the first time around because we only have so many back and forths per week based on time zones. Video and audio can help to share nuance, and ... any number of reasons, basically, don't constrain everything to just one tool, whether that is text or video.
Use everything in your toolbelt when it's appropriate and particularly when you're trying to convey anything around emotion or energy because those are things that can be easily misread. Keep it about processes, not people.
Venting can be helpful as an emotional release and validation, basically try not to fall into the danger mode where you negatively bond with somebody because you're just complaining about another person. Keep it productive.
A last note on this, we are at a bajilloin ... sometimes, your energy state or how a project is going basically that you're dealing with a sick child, or an overflowing toilet, or a sick child and an overflowing toilet and you don't get to something just because you don't get to something, and that is part of how the project is going, and you don't needed to judge yourself for that, you don't need to judge anybody else for that.
Sharing doesn't happen without emotional trust. So a third point here is building empathy for each other's pain points. Empathy here is very, very important, and you can kind of heard me touch upon this multiple times, but to give to get empathy, give empathy. You have to model the behaviour you want to see, apply the golden rule, trust and be trusted, however you want to put it, and this is a two-way steel the, and people behave how they are treated.
Make realistic deadlines about yourself so you can keep them and be honest about your capacity. For somebody else looking at you without knowing what is going on inside your head, it's very easy to mistake carelessness for malice, or ill will when you don't know them, which is why that earlier team-building of connectedness and emotional state is important, and I mention consistency here, because it's a lot easier for a team-mate to have empathy when they can see you being consistent with factors outside your control throwing things off schedule, basically make it easier for somebody to have empathy of your situation go give you the benefit of the doubt.
And this third one, you know, I think it is very important to be honest and clear. I believe in this honesty being the best option. Not the least just because it's the easiest, but be honest about what you are good at and what you like doing, and how you can help, essentially, if you think about it, what did you offer in the storefront of yourself if you are selling your skills? Being able to identify these things is something you can and should develop.
If you're interested in figuring out ways to identify what it is you're good at, let me nope in the Discord and we can cover it during the Q&A, but the most important thing here is to share honestly and listen when they share theirs. I have a co-worker I work with a lot who is great at teaching, comes from an educational background, great at concepts for learners, but he's been honest with me that he hates, hates, hates the part of project management where you have to chase people down. I, coming from a community management, event management background, I'm a cat-herder. It is 90% of what I do, and I don't mind it. But I'm not an engineer, nor do I have a desire to be.
So I let you look at the summary slide while I share real-world example, is that about two months ago, my co-worker and I got a last-minute project dumped on our lapse, pulled in after everybody else had started on it, it was very high-profile and be great for our team, but we were able to be honest with each other that it was a little frazzling and the timelines were stressful because we had that trust built up from our previous interactions.
We were able to have that private team channel to economies rate about it with others whilst still being productive and we had this constant open conversation about what we were good at and what we liked doing, I felt comfortable taking over all of the project management, stepping in dealing with the scheduling, the people-chasing, and I was able to do this without feeling like I was stepping on his toes. And I was able to trust that he wasn't going to kill the content and video, handle all of that entirely without any input from me, and he did, because we both knew what we were good at.
The important thing for me here isn't that we got it done, we got it done in a way that we felt good about. My goal for myself and my team-mates is we are all able to find the best ways to let each other shine. In the middle of everything that we are going through right now, a bare minimum, I think I can ask for, is helping each other be helpful at fulfilled at work. I know that we couldn't have knocked this out the park the way we did without the trust built on communication and empathy. And there we go!