More people are working from home than ever before. The COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent shutdowns have necessitated swift pivots to remote working globally. Even companies that were previously opposed to employees working from home have had to adapt.
Furthermore, it looks like remote working is here to stay. According to a recent Gartner study, around 74% of companies intend to keep at least some of their team members working from home when the pandemic is over:
There are many great things about working remotely. People who work from home enjoy a more flexible schedule, save time and money by avoiding the daily commute, and have more time to spend with their families.
However, there can also be downsides. One of the struggles reported by many remote workers is feeling a lack of connection to their colleagues and teammates. A report by Slack suggests that 45% of newly remote workers and 25% of experienced remote workers report a lowered sense of belonging when working from home:
Since I run an ecommerce platform, my work is almost entirely online. As a result, I’ve worked with remote teams for many years and have learned some tricks and strategies to build relationships, improve team cohesion, and increase that sense of belonging for everyone.
Use video conferencing
It’s easier to feel connected to other people when you can see their faces and watch their body language. Therefore, avoid having all your communication take place via email. Using video conferencing software will allow everyone to feel more connected. A team meeting where everyone has their camera switched on is the best way to simulate all being in the same room together.
Not everyone feels comfortable being on camera, but it does get easier the more you do it!
Improve your written communication skills
It’s inevitable that remote teams will use a lot of written communication. Therefore, it’s essential that you work on your writing skills. Brush up on your spelling, grammar, and punctuation and use a grammar-checker if you need some extra pointers. Make sure that you write in full sentences, make your point clearly, and don’t waffle. Be direct, but not brusque or rude.
Since there are no cues from tone of voice or body-language when you send an email or IM, be particularly mindful of how your words will be taken. Consider this email:
Joe – I need that report by 3 p.m. Tuesday. Thanks.
It gets the message across, but it’s likely to come across as impatient. Receiving this, “Joe” might even wonder if he has upset you in some way. Now consider this version:
Hey Joe, hope you had a great weekend. Could I get the report by 3 p.m. Tuesday, please? Thanks for your help ?
For the sake of a few additional seconds to write a friendly greeting and sign-off (emoji optional), and to say please, the whole tone of the email has changed for the better.
Make time for non-work chat
One of the joys of working in an office, and which many people miss when they first move to remote working, is “water cooler chat” – the casual conversations about non-work matters that happen throughout the day. There are a couple of different ways to build this in when you’re working from home:
- Leave a few additional minutes at the beginning or end of each meeting. Even better, designate it as “general catch up” time in the agenda.
- Have an online “virtual water cooler.” This could take the form of a Slack channel, Microsoft Teams page, or WhatsApp group chat. Optionally, have a theme-of-the-week to get people talking (think pets, food, view from your window, the first place you want to go on vacation when travel bans are lifted, and so on.)
It might seem frivolous to spend time talking about the weather, vacations, or your dog when everyone is busy with work, but office small talk and water cooler chat really does make teams stronger and grow stronger working relationships.
Plan remote team-building activities
If the thought of yet another Zoom quiz has you rolling your eyes, there are many different options for remote team-building activities. Different options will work for different teams. Here are just a few for you to consider:
- Skillshare. One member of the team leads a 30-minute introduction to something they’re an expert in. It doesn’t have to be work-related – I’ve seen tutorials on everything from yoga to crochet to how to make the perfect coffee shop latte at home.
- “How Well Do You Know Your Team?” activity. This could take the form of a true/false or “two truths and a lie” quiz.
- Virtual Book Club. Have everyone read the same book (or chapter, article, or short story!) and have a discussion about it.
Remember that team-building activities should be opt-in. Making them mandatory stresses everyone out and ruins the spirit of what is supposed to be a bit of fun. There are endless options and you know what will work for your team best, so be creative!
Buddy up with a coworker
A buddy system, whether through official channels or informal, helps everyone on the team to feel like there’s at least one person they can talk to. If there is a buddying or mentoring program in place at your company, consider getting involved while you’re working remotely. If not, is there a teammate you’d like to create an informal buddy agreement with for as long as you’re working remotely?
It doesn’t have to be anything hugely time-consuming. Even agreeing to check in with each other once a week by phone or video call will make you both feel more connected.
Meet face-to-face when you can
Of course, meeting face-to-face is difficult if not impossible right now due to COVID-19, but it won’t be that way forever! People are going to want to see each other in person again when it’s safe to do so, so a team away day, lunch, or happy hour is likely to go down well. So if you manage a remote team, start working on planning something right now.
It might be difficult to meet in person if you and your teammates are on different continents, but if you’re not too geographically far-flung, or if one of you is traveling to the area where others live, make the time to get together in person. Don’t feel the need to manufacture a work reason if there isn’t one, either. Even sitting down and having a cup of coffee together for an hour has real value.
The importance of strong relationships
Working remotely doesn’t have to mean feeling lonely, isolated, or cut off from your team. Whether your team is 100% remote, or just temporarily separated by the pandemic, you should invest the time in getting to know your coworkers and building strong relationships across the distance.
When teammates see each other as fellow human beings first, everyone is happier at work and therefore more productive. It’s a win for employees, clients, and the company!