Think of some of the most popular remote-first companies you know: Buffer, Help Scout, Zapier, or Litmus might come to mind. In looking at the Glassdoor reviews for these teams, people frequently cite the amazing team cultures. For example, most Zapier employees note how much they adore the camaraderie of their regular team offsite outings:
Clearly, a tight-knit culture is just as important for remote teams as co-located ones. And yet, too many companies fail to build a strong team dynamic. A whopping 65% of remote employees report they have never had a team bonding experience.
This is a missed opportunity. Strong bonds between teammates can foster trust, accountability, and fun. Remote teams can strengthen team bonding, regardless of team size, location, or budget. With some creativity and forethought, managers can plan team building activities that allow virtual staff to experience the camaraderie usually found only in a physical office space.
Virtual Team Building at Orientation
Let’s begin at the beginning – orientation. When you on-board a new employee, you should create a plan to introduce them to the essential people on the team. This includes their immediate supervisor and the other people they will be working with most closely. Ask your new hire to introduce himself or herself in a knowledge base like Tettra. This could include basic contact info, as well as personal info like hobbies, music preferences, or favorite books. Having a repository of these pages inside your wiki also makes it easier for a new team member to get acquainted with others on the team by reading their intro pages.
A good virtual orientation also includes info on where to turn for support. This means Human Resources and Information Technology, of course, but it might also mean introducing them to affinity groups. If your team has affinity groups for women, people of color, or parents, make sure to communicate these support systems.
Last, carve out time and opportunities for others to “meet” your new hires. Most companies have a process or cadence for managers to sync up with new hires. Developing a secondary process for immediate team members to welcome the new employee is also essential. Just as you would have an established staff member take their new colleague out to lunch on the first day at a physical location, having team members reach out to their new virtual team member can help to welcome and integrate the new employee.
Ongoing Virtual Team Building
Creating a strong team culture goes beyond first day activities. Remote employees need to feel like they are part of a cohesive team, working toward a common goal. There are a few ways to build team building into your virtual culture.
First, do not eliminate chit chat from your business communication channels. Just as vital team building occurs around the water cooler in physical offices, allowing personal relationships over phone calls, email, and slack channels is a good thing.
Personal relationships lubricate the work environment. You can do this by asking ice breaker questions at staff meetings. Another team building exercise is to have a water cooler channel on slack. This could just be labeled “water cooler” or you could dedicate it to a theme such as “dogs” and encourage people to post pictures of their pets.
Second, don’t miss the opportunity to highlight people’s big days and accomplishments. Have a process to notify a person’s teammates when there is a birthday and encourage people to wish them a happy birthday. The slack birthday bot can automate this for you. Similarly, when a team member celebrates a milestone or a big win, make sure that their colleagues celebrate it with them.
Third, while some companies hold annual on-site meetings for their entire team, you can also have virtual one to three day retreats. Advertising agency REA Group holds quarterly retreats over Slack known as “Inventorships” in which their worldwide staff work on innovation within the company. This is a terrific opportunity to help people get to know one another without breaking the bank on flights and hotel rooms for the entire company.
Fourth, if you have a large enough virtual team, chances are that some of your employees will live within a short drive of one another. Encourage them to meet up for coffee or lunch to develop offline relationships. Some companies facilitate these meetings by sending the employees prepaid Starbucks or restaurant gift cards to use with one another. Again, by having people include their physical location on an introduction page in your wiki, you’ll make it easier for people to figure out who might be nearby.
Finally, don’t overlook downtime fun. Encourage your workers to flex their brains and compete against one another in a fantasy league or some company games. For instance, Words with Friends has a group play option in the Google apps store. You can highlight the week’s high score in the company email.
Documenting Your Team Building Best Practices
While it is important to think about how to develop company culture for your remote team, it is also important to document your practices, so that the hard work you put into getting things started will continue after you are promoted or leave the company. Creating a set of best practices for team building allows the culture you create to live on after you leave.
Your documentation should include the rationale for your processes, steps to implement the process, and links to apps and software that facilitate the process.
You should also communicate that you value culture in your remote workforce and that you have specific activities to facilitate it. Make sure you document and share your stance internally and externally. This will help your existing employees feel comfortable taking time for coffee or a chat, and it might also help you attract other great employees who value culture.
The future of work is remote. That does not mean that work relationships are going away. It just means that we are changing how they occur. Companies that think intentionally about building relationships stand a greater chance of success. With good planning, documentation, and repeatable execution, you can build a strong and cohesive team, regardless of location or time zone.