Remote Work Culture: How Teams Maintain Connection at a Distance

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Overheard calls, drop-ins at your desk when you were finally getting into the zone, and those quick trips to the kitchen that always seem to turn into 15-minute conversations about your weekend — when you think of all the opportunities for distraction in the workplace, you might just think you’re better off working remotely.

That is, until the loneliness, the lack of guidance, and the work days that turn into work nights start to set in.

Whether your team has always been distributed or your staff is newly-remote in light of COVID-19, more businesses than ever before are navigating remote work.

So to help you do that, we put together the following strategies to help teams establish strong remote connectivity, culture, and work-life balance that will keep everyone safe and sane no matter if it’s their first day working from home or their thousandth.

7 Strategies for Maintaining Connectivity and Encouraging Balance Among Remote Teams

While employees who work remotely report that they feel less stress and get more work done than when they’re in the office, Buffer’s State of Remote Work 2018 Report found that loneliness is a major downside for remote workers and a factor that makes people more likely to quit a remote job.

Visual of a chart showing the common struggles that remote workers face

Working remotely is a double-edged sword. Businesses get to “keep the lights on” and workers get to feel productive — but both come at the risk of employees who end up feeling isolated and burned out.

However, there are several strategies including implementing management training, boundary setting, and even non-work activities that businesses can employ to encourage connectivity, productivity, and sanity.

Start at the Top

According to remote managers, “fostering a sense of connection without a shared location” is the hardest part of the job.

Here are some extra steps your organization should take to help managers continue working well with their teams even after a sudden shift to working remotely:

  • Make sure managers have budget and permission to acquire both the physical (like a webcam) and the digital (like chat applications) tools they need to stay connected with employees.
  • Help them set up any new digital channels they might need to keep lines of communication open.
  • Encourage managers to set up frequent, ongoing check-ins with each member of their team(s). This is good for morale as well as keeping projects on track even when things change quickly.
  • Suggest increased, public recognition when a team or a worker does something outstanding.
An illustration of shaking hands with a quote about what is seen as the most difficult part of working remotely

Create Culture Around How You Work, Not Where You Work

Sure, a stocked fridge and state-of-the-art foosball tables are fun, but culture should really be about how you work — not the office where you work.

Take Zapier, for example, Since the fully-distributed team of over 200 people can’t rely on the physical perks that are often confused with culture, here are some of the ways they focus on making key elements of their work — the foundation of their culture — enjoyable and rewarding:

  • When we work with customers: Are we focused on getting the job done fast or are we focused on the quality of the outcome?
  • When we communicate with each other: Are we respecting each other’s time? Are we staying cognizant of how this communication might impact each other’s workdays?
  • When we start new projects: Are our timelines realistic? Are we staying true to the number of hours employees should be expected to work each day?

Because the work a remote company does is often the most visible representation of their success and what they stand for, it’s important to focus on how that work gets done. These values, in turn, will shape the company culture in a way that’s true-to-life.

Plan Digital, All-Hands Check-Ins

Realistically, the best way to monitor productivity and results in a remote setting is to literally see the progress of the work.

That means distributed organizations should plan digital check-ins on a regular basis to see where everyone stands on their assignments.

We like weekly “all-hands” (meaning, everyone is present) digital “progress reports” where the whole team can share updates, celebrate wins, and talk through blockers as needed. Plus, there’s nothing wrong with giving workers a little motivation to have something cool to show off at the end of the week.

However, if managers have concerns about the progress of a specific project or feel an individual’s work quality is suffering, that discussion should be saved for a one-on-one digital chat or call.

It Doesn’t Have to be All Work and No Fun — Keep the Watercooler Alive

Co-located companies where workers are all in the same building together definitely have an advantage when it comes to opportunities for workers to blow off steam and build trust quickly.

In physical offices, people naturally congregate around the literal watercooler to get to know new hires and catch with old work buddies.

So what’s to stop a digital office from creating a virtual watercooler where workers can do the same?

Slack is a widely-used chat application where businesses set up channels that are based on different topics. They can be client-specific, project-specific, and some can be just for fun. Slack gives distributed workers a digital gather place where they can banter, share personal updates, and post funny finds just like they would in a physical office space.

If your team is new to the concept of the “digital watercooler,” there’s a fool-proof way to get them engaged: Icebreaker questions.

And no, we’re not talking about groan-inducing small talk, we’re talking about outside-the-box conversation starters that get people thinking, laughing, and forgetting their working in a room by themselves for the moment.

If you need help coming up with some creative and non-work related conversation starters, Know Your Team has a list of 25 icebreaker questions to get you started.

An illustration showing examples of effective "get-to-know-you" icebreaker questions

Set Boundaries

No one will be surprised to hear that remote workers often feel like they’re always “on.” After all, it’s all too easy to grab your laptop and move from the desk to the couch to check one last thing (famous last words).

In these situations, the brunt of the responsibility should be on leadership to respect standard business hours when communicating with workers.

But, of course, it isn’t always easy to keep up with large teams that are scattered across time zones. That’s why we also recommend that workers be clear about their “office hours” and try to make this information easy to find for someone who needs to get in touch.

To reference Slack again, it has settings that enable a user to input their timezone, indicate whether they are “active” or “away,” turn off or delay notifications, and even add a customized status to add more context to the situation.

Host Non-Work Activities to Build Trust

Book clubs. Holiday gift exchanges. Happy hours.

While these aren’t necessarily work-related activities, they are activities that can help your team work better by creating trust. That’s because these types of activities build something called “affective trust,” which is  a form of trust that’s based on emotional bonds and interpersonal relationships.

If you’re looking for a trust-building activity that’s a touch more tied to work, consider putting together laid-back, digital “masterminds” once in a while where one of your employees can teach the others about a work-related topic that they’ve mastered. Mentoring isn’t just good for those who learn something new — it’s also great for the mentor’s morale.

When You Can, Get Together

Even though the future is uncertain right now, we have a lot of hope that someday soon enough it’ll be safe to gather your whole team in one location together.

No matter the size of your team, what you do, or the last time you all saw each other — there’s just something about getting everyone in a room together chatting and collaborating that helps strengthen company culture, morale, and even long-term success.

You don’t necessarily need to fly your whole team to a tropical island for a fancy corporate retreat (unless that’s what you want, of course!), you just need to find the time to get together for some good old-fashioned face-to-face interaction.

How Is Your Team Balancing Connectivity and Boundaries Right Now?

There is no doubt that the sudden shift to remote work has been hard for many organizations to cope with, which is exactly why we moved quickly to publish our top strategies for maintaining productivity as well as boundaries in these trying times. We sincerely hope our tips will help your organization and, while you’re here, we also hope you’ll share any of your own tips with us and other readers in the comment section below.

Cheers to your safety and sanity!

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