Laurent Parenteau

Building a Cohesive Distributed Team

This is a challenge that all teams have.

You’ve hired seven people, spread across 5 different time zones. You’re optimistic about your team; you’ve chosen them well and are looking forward to what you’ll build together. But now the easy part is done (hiring), you have to build that distributed team as a cohesive unit.

This is a challenge that all teams have, it isn’t specific to distributed team. But it is a challenge that all distributed team knows they need to tackle. When the team is all collocated, sometimes (but more often than most would admit), there’s a tendency to ignore it and assume it will be resolved on its own, that there’s no need to consciously do something about it.

The foundation of a cohesive team is communication. If you have good communication, the team can function as a single unit. If communication is lacking, things fill break apart over time and the team will become dysfunctional. Any situation, every event that happens, good or bad, can be traced back to communication.

Communication is a two way street. Messages transmitted need to be interpreted by the other side, and the interpretation part is as important. Ever played team games like Pictionary or Cranium, where one team member need to guess what the other person meant? Some teams are much better at it than others. The same drawing, nobody else would guess, but that team member knows you enough that your intended message is clear and the person gets it.

So what you aim for, is having that level of good communication happening in your team. For this to be possible, a few aspects need to be considered :


Trust is the basis of any good communication. When there is no trust, you assume the message you receive is a lie and that you need to reinterpret it to really know the truth. Of course, whether it is a lie or not isn’t relevant because you don’t trust it anyway. While adversarial situation like that happens, this is definitely not something you want in your team. Hiring trustworthy people should be your number one goal when hiring, but sometimes mistakes happen. If you don’t feel that you can trust your teammates, don’t wait and dig right now into that, to understand why.

There are ways to build and increase trust in your team and you should look into that. But if you really think the person isn’t trustworthy, then consider that a bad hire, let the person go in the most human way possible, and move on.


Empathy is the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within their frame of reference, that is, the capacity to place oneself in another’s position. — Wikipedia

Without empathy, any diverging opinions can quickly devolve into an adversarial situation. Again, this is something you DO NOT WANT to happen in your team. When every body’s aligned, all is good. When it isn’t the case, you need empathy.

I believe the natural response that most people have when someone brings a different point of view, or says something that contradicts what you are already thinking, is a defensive response. You consider the different opinion to be an attack and you look for possible defenses against that imaginary attack. The tendency of this happening is a bit lower when the interaction is in person, because you get more cues (ie, voice tone, body language, etc.) about the person’s intent, but it definitely happens often too. Feeling attacked over an email or text message is more frequent because you lack those cues, so your brain fill it in and our evolutionary path led us to default on the side of considering everything to be an attack, unless you have evidence to the contrary.

That said, it is easy to counteract this natural reaction. Taking a few seconds (or minutes) before replying back is effective and super simple to do in text communication. As such, you should never hurry your replies, take the time to let your initial emotions and reaction pass and reply only when you’re clear headed.

An improved version of that is to ask clarifying questions, or rephrasing the other’s point using your own words, to make sure you understand the intent and all the details. This result in your taking more time before actually replying, but it also allows you to improve your understanding of the other person’s message. It is a rare occurrence that you really 100% understand exactly what the other person meant. By asking questions back, it help you clarify the picture and get more insight into the other’s thinking process. All that result in a better understanding, that will likely be that there was no attack intended here at all.

Understanding your mission

Since the opportunities for random communication will be less (if not completely null) in a distributed environment, risk of everyone understanding the mission or goals of the business or team differently are higher. Difference in understanding can lead to differences in how to solve problems, what to prioritize, what to talk about, etc.

As such, making sure everyone really understand your mission and goals should be high on your priority list. This implies that you have a clear mission and goals in the first place, so if that isn’t the case, well, you know what to work on now. But once this is nailed, you should spam it around as much as you can. Keep repeating this over and over and over. If everyone really knows where you’re going, our brains fill in the blanks and rearrange our understandings to make it align in that direction. So every time a message won’t be 100% clear, the odds of the other person to interpret it “the right way” will be much higher.

This also reduces the chances of conflict because everyone works toward the same goals (ie. no internal competitions). Another nice side effect is that productivity will go up, again, because everyone will paddle in the same direction.

There’s of course more to this, but it is mostly on the tactical side. Everything ends up resolving to either trust, empathy, and/or understanding of mission. Ensure those 3 aspects are good and you will have a cohesive (distributed) team.