Bringing remote teams together: 5 ways to build community (when you’re thousands of miles apart)

Why is it that even though we spend more time than ever on email, chat, and other communication tools, we still feel isolated during the workday?

According to the Global Work Connectivity study, almost half of our days are spent using technology to communicate. Yet the majority of people say this lack of in-person connection makes them feel lonely always or very often as a result.

This epidemic of loneliness impacts not only our ability to be productive and focused but to feel connected as well. And as remote working becomes more accepted, these issues are only getting worse. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

As a fully remote company, we’ve spent years researching and trying different ways to help our team feel more connected and motivated.

Here are just some of the ways we at RescueTime (and other remote companies) have found for building community and connection even when your team is thousands of miles apart.

RescueTime helps you stay focused by blocking distracting sites, giving you in-depth reports on how you spend your time, and more. Try it for free

The “loneliness epidemic” of remote working (and why it matters)

remote working isolation

Talk to most office workers and they’ll tell you they dream of being separated from nosey teammates, constant interruptions, and a distracting environment. But the problems with remote working don’t come from being physically alone, but from being mentally isolated.

The problems with remote working don't come from being physically alone. But from being mentally isolated. Click To Tweet

Human beings need social and face-to-face interaction to build trust and understanding. Just think about the way we communicate as an example. We’ve all misread the tone or message of an email or text. And studies agree that the majority of meaning we get from a conversation is non-verbal like tone and body language.

It’s hard to pick up on social cues when you’re not near the person you’re speaking with. Even if you regularly use video chats and calls.

As Google’s People Analytics Manager, Veronica Gilrane, writes:

“Building relationships with teammates I don’t casually bump into in the hallway is a bit challenging. It feels natural to ask about after work plans or swap movie reviews when you’re meeting face to face, but it takes more effort to form that bond when you’re mostly seeing each other on a video screen.”

And when you throw in the struggle of power dynamics that happen in the workplace, this only gets more awkward. According to a recent article in Harvard Business Review, 69% of managers say they’re uncomfortable communicating with employees. And you can only assume that number is higher when the roles are reversed.

All this leads to a work environment and culture where your team doesn’t feel safe to take risks, express their opinions, and do their best work. In the worst-case scenario, this could even cause teammates to leave.

As Dave Lawrence explains on the GrowthHouse blog:

“A happy worker is a grateful worker. The result is the type of loyalty that keeps your A-players with you for the long haul and reduces your overall turnover within the team.”

5 ways to bring your remote team together

remote working team

When remote teams are connected and confident, they not only feel happier but also do better work.

A two-year-long study of hundreds of teams at Google found that the most successful teams have what’s called psychological safety. As Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson explains it, this is a culture “characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves.’’

Teams with psychological safety are more creative. They’re more trusting. They’re more innovative. And most of all, they’re more connected. Think of it as the Holy Grail for successful collaboration, whether you’re working remotely or in-person.

Here are 5 ways we at RescueTime and other remote teams have created psychological safety and community in teams located all over the world.

1. Communication: Set clear expectations and give people the tools to know what you’re working on

Clear communication and expectations are at the core of any great team, especially when you’re working remotely.

And while our usual communication advice applies here (i.e. be clear about when you’re available, set expectations on response times, and make an effort to become a better listener), there are some rules that can help remote teams specifically feel more connected.

Set clear boundaries

Many remote workers feel the need to be ‘always available.’ Yet, as we wrote in our Guide on How to Leave Work at Work, this leads to something called anticipatory stress. In other words, we stress out that someone’s going to send us a message at any moment.

Instead, a simple thing like asking people their preferred time for meetings, questions, or calls can help them feel respected and acknowledged. To take it a step further, we suggest setting ‘office hours’ where people know you’re available and can reach out then.

Get to know each other as people

Human connection starts by treating everyone as a human. But it’s easy for your communication to become purely transactional when you’re working remotely. Instead, you should take the time to let people talk and get to know each other.

As Google’s Veronica Gilrane writes:

“Instead of jumping right into an agenda, allow some time at the top of the meeting for an open-ended question, like ‘what did you do this weekend?’ It’s an easy way to build remote connections and establish a rapport.”

Show people what you’re working on

Remote workers regularly feel like they have to perform to get noticed. Not only is it much clearer in an office setting when your teammates are heavy into some deep work and shouldn’t be disturbed, but you also know that people can see what you’re doing.

While some teams like to update people all the time about what they’re doing and if they’re away from the keyboard, that can feel a bit too much like micromanagement.

Instead, with our new RescueTime for Slack integration, you can set custom statuses that are triggered by what you’re currently focused on.

This way, your team can quickly see if you’re heads-down and make a better call about whether they need to interrupt you. You can even set Slack to automatically put you into a short Do-Not-Disturb mode if you’re focused on meaningful work.

2. Shared experiences: Use Book Clubs and other tools to create community

As Zapier CEO, Wade Foster writes:

“A co-located office develops its own personality through inside jokes, shared experiences, and a collaborative environment, such as a meeting room with whiteboards. A remote team needs to develop something similar.”

There are lots of ways to do this, such as creating specific Slack channels based on interests (not just at work!) but one of our favorite virtual team-building activties recently has been the RescueTime Book Club.

Here’s how it works:

  • Employees add books to a shared reading list. Any employee can contribute a book to the reading list that others can get for free. We use a simple Google Form that captures the title, author, ISBN, category, Amazon link, and comments where the teammate can explain why they picked this book.
  • The company buys a copy for anyone who wants it. Every book on the list is available for anyone who wants it either as a paperback, Kindle, or audiobook.
  • We use the #book-club Slack channel to discuss. A dedicated Slack channel lets us talk about what we’re reading and share our experience.

RescueTime Book Club

So far we’ve had some pretty interesting conversations, from work-focused books like Cal Newport’s Deep Work to non-fiction like Bad Blood, the crazy story of the rise and fall of Theranos.

By setting the scope of the book club to everything and anything, our team feels safer to suggest books they love and says something about them.

3. Special events: Take advantage of holidays to get to know people

I once worked at a startup that handed out $50 Amazon gift cards to everyone during the holidays. And while the gesture was appreciated, there’s nothing that brings together people like meaningful gift-giving.

Learning enough about someone to get them a gift they actually want takes time and effort. But it also helps you as a team connect on a deeper level. One of the best ways we’ve found to do this is with a game called Conspiracy Santa.

RescueTime Conspiracy Santa

Created by the team at Zapier, Conspiracy Santa is a remote working-friendly version of the classic Secret Santa. Instead of being assigned a random teammate to buy a gift for, your team works together to pick the perfect one.

Here’s how it works:

  • Set a budget for presents and a date for your ‘gift opening party’
  • An email thread goes out to everyone except the receiver of the gift
  • Everyone includes a few rounds of replies about what they know about this person and then proposes gift ideas (each person should also assign a friend or family member the team can reach out to only once if they’re stuck)
  • Agree on a gift (which the company will purchase)
  • Get together over video chat on the day of the ‘party’ to open gifts and talk about them

4. Video calls: Use weekly video meetups to see everyone’s face

We’ve already mentioned them a few times already, but it’s hard to underestimate the power of seeing your teammates face-to-face. Weekly video ‘all hands’ are a fantastic way to create a sense of community and belongingness.

The team at Buffer has created a specific way to make sure these video chats aren’t just dry, boring company updates and actually help build an authentic connection. Here’s how they structure their video calls:

  • Start with a welcome and agenda. Get everyone on the same page and set the tone by taking a few minutes to catch up.
  • Celebrate accomplishments. Let people know about exciting things that happened. New customers. Teammates. Promotions. Teammate life events. Or even just shout outs and gratitude.
  • Get an update from the CEO. Use this as a high-level update to tell people how company-wide goals are progressing.
  • Take a quick physical activity break. Long video calls can suck the energy out of you. Take a break in the middle for some team stretches.
  • Make the rounds of team updates. Give each team a chance to share major updates, concerns, or questions to the rest of the company.
  • Move into a Q&A session. Allow people to ask questions either real-time or distribute an anonymous form ahead of time for more sensitive questions.
  • Break out into smaller groups. Take 15 minutes at the end of the group call to break into smaller groups of people who might not normally connect and give them a chance to talk more personally.

While weekly video calls are a great way to bring your whole team together, it’s also important that people feel like you’re thinking about them. Reaching out periodically to check in and catch up is a powerful way to build a sense of shared belonging without disrupting your workday too much.

RescueTime helps you stay focused by blocking distracting sites, giving you in-depth reports on how you spend your time, and more. Try it for free

5. Meet up: Make time to connect with your team in person (or not!)

As Dan Schawbel, author of Back to Human: How Great Leaders Create Connection in the Age of Isolation writes:

“What workers crave most—and what research increasingly shows to be the hallmark of the highest-performing workplace cultures—is a sense of authentic connection with others.”

There’s no better way to create an authentic connection than actually bringing people together in person. Yet for many companies, the financial strain of flying the entire team out to a location or taking time off is too much.

At Trello, they still do large annual in-person meetups but also put on “Choose-Your-Own Company Adventures.”

Here’s how it works:

  • Pick a day. If possible, you should try to give everyone the same day off so it’s a truly shared experience.
  • Set a theme. In Trello’s case, their theme was “Vitamin D Appreciation Day” to encourage people to get outside and enjoy nature.
  • Catch up. Create a way for everyone on the team to share their adventures. This could be during a team call or a shared photo library.

What you do during your day is up to you. But to keep these events open to teammates’ specific needs, yet still aligned with company values, they put together this rule:

“Do what you want that gives you a break (like childcare) or builds a great memory, provided that it is safe, legal, and does no harm to others.”

Remote culture and community is built on trust

Building a culture of connection means trusting your team. Especially when you’re remote working, it’s easy to come across as micromanaging when you’re just trying to check in. But by following a few of these practices and culture shifts, you can start to create a community with your team, no matter where they are.

Jory MacKay

Jory MacKay is a writer, content marketer, and editor of the RescueTime blog.

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