Every small business owner knows how important a solid gang of employees can be. A close-knit team that knows how to work together can make your company a joy to run and a financial success. On the other hand, a disjointed or divided team is like corporate quicksand—without a swift correction, your business will inevitably go under.
While hiring employees that get along and work well together goes a long way toward creating the strong culture that startups and small businesses need, even the best team needs some shoring up from time to time.
The question is, how do you build unity and alignment when your budget is tight or your team is spread across multiple work sites?
Find tools that support good communication
As an entrepreneur, it’s important to go into any growth phase prepared for the challenge of finding the right collaboration tools for your employees. Only you know the unique characteristics of your staff, and only you can decide what will work.
It’s likely you won’t settle on a single team communication solution. The trick is to collect a variety of resources which, when combined, give you what you need to create a cohesive, well-functioning team.
There have never been more options available to meet this goal, from standalone platforms like Slack, a messaging app for teams, to full office suites from Microsoft. Making the wrong decision can cost a startup wasted dollars and, even worse, blunted momentum. I always recommend you try before you buy. Take advantage of free trials when available and discover with your team whether it works for you.
To make the right decisions, an entrepreneur needs to think about the best way to build company culture while prioritizing true collaboration. At one bicoastal startup where I worked, the answer was big-screen TVs with webcams in both offices that were always on during work hours. At any time, teams could huddle in front of a screen for a meeting, a quick catch-up session, or a few minutes of conversation about a problematic line of code. For another startup, Slack and Trello, a collaborative project management app, were all that was needed.
No one can tell you what the right combination will be, although many will try. You will have to discover how the pieces fit together for yourself.
What about cost?
There’s no way around the fact that traditional team-bonding exercises equal time away from work. If your employees spend a day learning to trust one another and setting client work aside, it’s possible that clients will be lost, and not all businesses can afford that risk.
That’s why the little things—culture, executive transparency, and commonly understood goals—are so important. There are a lot of simple tools that don’t have the “wow” factor of going to an arcade or a mountain retreat, but do actually foster communication and productivity.
At the macro level, numerous solutions promise to minimize travel costs and lost productivity. Here are five low-cost ideas that can help you build a stronger team without going broke.
1. Build your team foundation with the right cement
Whom you hire to be part of your team really does set the foundation for success or failure. If you have video conferencing capabilities, using them for an initial face-to-face interview can be illuminating as well as cost-efficient. Look for employees who value transparency and clear communication. If you build your culture on that foundation, internal communications will come easier for everyone.
When you have dependable employees, team building can be as simple as having lunch together or scheduling regular conference calls between employees in different physical locations. Even social media—Facebook and GroupMe chats or groups, for example—can be great places for employees to chat, ask questions, and even blow off steam, though it’s certainly not foolproof. Allowing employees to access their Facebook pages and post at-will could inadvertently breach confidentiality agreements, and messaging apps like GroupMe carry the inherent risk of harassment.
The determining factor is your employees. If you can trust them, then you can more than likely trust their use of social media.
2. Fill your toolbox carefully
A whiteboard is a great tool, but it doesn’t work across multiple offices and work sites. Shared calendars and emails can go a long way to improving team cohesion, but they will only get you so far.
Visual tools like Trello and Asana give teams a collaborative center where they can coordinate in a way that satisfies both right- and left-brained employees. At Phone.com, we use Slack across our three office locations and with multiple remote employees and contractors to foster teamwork and good communication.
Here’s the thing about all of these tools, however: No matter how good they are, you get the benefits only if your team actually uses them and uses them efficiently. Slack has many pitfalls, including copious add-ons and a forum that can, at times, seem like a conversation in a dance club. Productivity apps—like Trello—require constant maintenance and individual tailoring. That’s why it’s so important to choose those tools that you not only like and will use, but also those that you understand. When the team sees the leadership using a tool productively, they will naturally follow.
3. Omit needless bells and whistles
This may seem like an obvious tip, but you might be surprised how many people overlook it. Use the tools you purchase or get rid of them. Most of the tools we’re talking about here are subscription-based, and if you or your team doesn’t take advantage of them, you’re just bleeding money that could be put to better use.
Keep those tools that have multiple applications. Video conferencing, for instance, can serve many roles—even things as simple as improving inter-office communications. A quick face-to-face from one desk to another can save valuable work time, allowing issues to be resolved in minutes rather than multiple days’ worth of emails.
4. Get a good look at each other
I’ve hinted at this tip several times so far because I really do believe in the value of video conferencing. The modern workplace is flexible and remote, which provides unique benefits and specific challenges. Video conferencing can address many of these. From one-on-ones to all-hands-on-deck, nothing brings a dispersed team together like being able to sit together and chat in one virtual room.
Ideally, choose a video conferencing solution that is tied into your phone conferencing system so the real road warriors can call in and be part of your whole team. Once you have an established system, set up monthly meetings for the whole company. Regular video meetings can go a long way to forming connections among co-workers, strengthening your team as a whole.
5. Open your ears
Your team members will have experience using a variety of tools, so ask them what’s worked best in the past and see where functionality lines up with practical use. Being open to feedback is vital in a business owner. Being flexible will help you stay up-to-date with today’s strongest options.
Establishing and continually building your team doesn’t have to be a drain on your resources. So many options exist for tools that can take the pain out of the process.
When you build a team on the foundation of a strong company culture, the benefits are obvious: improved communication, increased remote productivity, reduced travel expenses, and better work-life balance for everyone. What’s there to lose?
Ari Rabban is the CEO of Phone.com and a veteran of the IP communications industry. Phone.com’s virtual phone service builds on the digital VoIP industry experience of its founders to deliver a complete suite of enterprise-grade unified communication services at an SMB price. Ari was named among the Top 20 Most Influential People in VoIP 2012 and currently serves on several boards, including the New Jersey Tech Council. You can follow him on Twitter @arabban.